A message from WMU-AAUP President, Dr. Cathryn Bailey, and WMU-AAUP Vice President, Dr. Whitney DeCamp
As WMU’s determination to implement its controversial new SRM budget model forges ahead, apparently on schedule, grave worries and concerns are beginning to pile up. This is not a surprise given that the model places still more pressure on employees even as our campus morale crisis continues to simmer. At the very same time that faculty and staff report being under-appreciated, unheard, and, in some cases chronically under-resourced, they are being urged to “reach deep,” to innovate, to grab the reins and solve WMU’s supposed financial problems and enrollment woes all under the SRM banner.
At the WMU-AAUP, we have been sharing concerns about the once-trendy “RCM” or “SRM” budget models for a while. Although SRM advocates champion the supposed flexibility and motivation this model provides to individual colleges, the predictable result is often a hunger games scenario. Accordingly, and what’s now happening at WMU: under the tacit or spoken threat of elimination, faculty are forced to prove their short-term value and worth, competing against one another for precious students, credit hours, and resources simply for the privilege of advancing into yet another round of kill-or-be-killed.
The practical problems with the SRM models are legion and very much in line with concerns being shared with us by our faculty and staff colleagues:
* As colleges are pressed to generate revenue in ever tightening circumstances, individual departments and employees are being tasked with solving the enrollment problem. Counterintuitively, at the same time the faculty are being starved of resources, we are being prodded to move faster and faster.
* Individual units and employees are being held responsible for solving institutional and systemic problems, sometimes under the guise of shared governance. As one faculty member colleague recently put it: “We’re not just being asked to do more with less. We’re being asked to perform magic because some of the higher ups have given up on addressing the problems themselves.”
* The integrity and value of the institution as a whole is placed in jeopardy in the supposed service of rewarding innovative and profitable units. There is renewed pressure on colleges and departments to come up with short-term efforts to attract students even as WMU’s basic academic infrastructure creaks, groans, and crumbles after years of neglect. Although SRM “subventions” are supposed to protect the university’s core commitments, the reality as it begins to unfold tells a different story, a competitive free-for-all with permanent damage to the core academic infrastructure.
The fact that the practical and logistical problems of the SRM model are so ubiquitous may be why our campus community has not, as far as we know, ever been presented with actual examples of true peer institutions where the model has been implemented to good long-term effect. Instead, we have been provided with slogans and cheerleading, appeals to “innovation,” “creativity,” “autonomy,” and the like. Again, the basic message seems to be that if Western is to address its enrollment problems and its purported attendant financial scarcity, it is ultimately up to “us” to do it, even in the midst of gross staffing shortages that impede basic operations all across campus.
That is, there is further pressure on individual faculty members, instructors and teaching assistants — most of whom are already committed to innovation and the development of responsive curricula — to create trendy new courses and programs so compelling that they will draw students from around the world. It is up to individual landscape workers and dining services employees to make campus so beautiful, and keep students so well fed, that they will stay. It is up to individual counselors and academic advisors to forge such deep personal connections with each individual student who crosses their path, that the student will feel “at home.”
Not only are we being asked, as individuals, to take on the responsibility of whether WMU, as an institution, thrives or fails — and this is in addition to the actual jobs we were hired by the university to do — the SRM rhetoric implies that we are anachronistic and irresponsible if we fail to rise to the occasion. Indeed, if we were cutting edge, energetic go-getters, it is often suggested, then we would be celebrating all of the supposed newfound economic, entrepreneurial “independence” rather than “complaining” that we’ve now been tasked with enrollment management.
It is, of course, true that individuals play an important role in shaping our university’s future. The fact that Western employees understand this is precisely why WMU has been doing as well as it has after decades of budget cutting. Most of us have been working incredibly hard even in increasingly difficult circumstances. But, it feels like gaslighting for employees who have been marginalized from so much critical decision-making over the years — for example, branding, identity, and fundamental budgetary values — to have potential institutional failure placed on our shoulders.
Although this is not a sexy idea, our position remains the same: Western Michigan University’s long-term success as an institution depends on its willingness to invest in the basic quality of its core academic mission. Innovation is great, and something faculty do exceedingly well. But there are no magical quick fixes to transform our university into a magnet for students across the region or around the world. To succeed intact as an institution over the long haul, WMU must draw a line in the sand and decide what it truly values rather than pursuing slogan-based gimmicks.
As we have repeatedly demonstrated, including during the last round of negotiations in 2021, WMU does not have a budget crisis so much as a budget priority crisis, one that seems to have placed Academic Affairs in a chronic state of artificial financial emergency. It is one thing to experience austerity during times of genuine material scarcity. It is quite another to know that, at least in part, such neglect is the predictable result of avoidable financial choices. Unless and until Western’s leaders — especially its president and its Board members — decide to re-slice the whole financial pie, no amount of SRM cheerleading will turn the tide. Indeed, as it stands now, the main consequence of WMU’s SRM experiment may simply be to make campus morale even worse than it already is.