By Dr. Cathryn Bailey, President of the WMU-AAUP
Faculty concerns about the direction WMU is taking have tended to prioritize shared governance, enrollment management, and campus morale. Less featured in recent discussions that led to a No Confidence Vote by the faculty, but often adjacent to faculty concern and dissatisfaction, is WMU’s adoption of a new budget model. As it is explained on Western’s own website:
“Strategic Resource Management is a philosophy and model, not a budget. It’s a means to achieve the University’s strategic goals, but it does not determine those goals. SRM aims to create transparency and clarity in the process of resource allocation, and it is most effectively applied in an atmosphere of shared commitment and engagement from the campus community. SRM is expected to provide an incentive-based and transparent budget system that is linked to WMU’s strategic plan, decentralize decision-making and align resources and accountability to University units.”
What WMU now refers to as SRM seems to be based on the so-called Responsibility Center Management (RCM) approach, which is meant to decentralize spending authority, ideally providing more flexibility and autonomy to the colleges and other divisions. This model is also supposed to incentivize the various units to increase efficiencies, cut waste, and encourage “investment” in areas most likely to generate revenue. Besides endeavoring to cover their own costs with their own revenues, individual colleges and other university “units” may be charged by the institution to cover shared expenses, such as overarching administrative and logistical support. Expenses that administration deems crucial may receive “subvention,” i.e., a subsidy, in an effort to protect less “profitable” but purportedly necessary programs and initiatives.
When this model is enacted in a higher learning context, some of the philosophical and practical challenges are pretty obvious. For example: In a national climate that increasingly treats teaching and learning as mere commodities, will market considerations and upper administrative priorities drive decisions about curricula? We are already witnessing unhealthy competition as colleges, and even departments, feel pitted against one another in a bid to secure their narrowly defined “profitable” futures, even if this seems likely to damage the university as a whole. Will a model that aims to reward entrepreneurialism and innovation instead jeopardize long term and historically valuable commitments, such as the institution’s longstanding identity, its liberal arts core, and employee morale and job security? We can probably all agree that efficiency and productivity are important considerations for any organization, but is this model really suitable for a complex, diverse, socially-responsible public university?
While defining and preparing to implement the new budget model, SRM-speak has already become well entrenched in WMU’s culture, including in how administrators propagate its associated aspirations and excuses.This includes both rationales for further belt-tightening as well as promises about potential rewards in some fantasy future. For example, loss of staff colleagues supposedly generates staffing “efficiency.” Raising faculty workloads — despite the implications on students and faculty research — has a net positive impact on a department’s bottom line. By contrast, equity adjustments to faculty and staff salaries would fail to match with SRM priorities. The unprecedented uncertainty of the recent past, administrators suggest, will transform into certainty once SRM is fully adopted and calibrated; like an invisible hand, its internal logic and sense will ultimately prevail. Meanwhile, if faculty, staff, and mid-level administrators are hardworking, innovative, and patient enough, it is implied, we will reap the rewards while less enterprising units will ensure their obsolescence.
This scenario would be bad enough if it were actually plausible that the SRM model is what now compels the institution toward budget austerity. But given that the scarcity and belt-tightening mindset has dominated WMU’s climate for years — with, for example, faculty and staff conceived primarily as a financial liability rather than as a resource — the “new budget model” sounds more like the latest rationalization for ongoing, endless austerity, even in the wake of an incredible $550 million donation. Further, for many faculty, staff, and administrators who’ve been around for a while it’s pretty hard to believe that the administration will begin rewarding units for their sacrifices and contributions, invocations of “SRM” notwithstanding, when such hard work and productivity has rarely been rewarded in the past. Indeed, it’s impossible to miss the fact that there always seem to be administrative rationalizations available for why some areas of campus deserve funding and others do not.
Despite Western’s insistence that SRM is a method, not a vision, this model has quickly taken on a life and identity of its own. It has already become a smokescreen behind which administrators need no longer take responsibility for the values driving their own budgetary decisions, and which discourages questions from faculty and staff. But dressing up promises and threats in SRM garb does not change the fact that it is individuals — including administrators and members of the Board of Trustees — who decide what is worth investment at Western Michigan University and what is not. When, for example, our staff colleagues were summarily eliminated in 2020, that was because WMU administrators, including both high level administrators and deans, made the decision to do so. Euphemistically referring to this as a RIF (Reduction in Force), as such acronyms often do, deflects responsibility from the actual individuals who made and rationalized the decisions.
The fact remains, however one labels the university’s budget model or its employee eliminations, that each and every decision about what deserves to be preserved and invested in, and what is superfluous, will be fundamentally human and values-driven. And the sheer fact that there will be arbitrariness in the “system” is evidenced by WMU’s repeated reassurance of subsidies for items which WMU leaders deem most worthy. Although SRM is a signature innovation under the president’s leadership, it is already functioning to provide the same kind of cover we’ve seen under past administrations: rationalizations for unnecessary and unwise budget cuts to essential services and personnel, and justifications for pet projects and potential short-term revenue streams. Whether SRM goes down in WMU’s history as yet another formula for university “executives” to point to while they spend and cut as they see fit will depend on us. How willing are we to challenge the ascendency of SRM jargon and demand accountability from the actual people behind each momentous budgetary decision?