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MSUM fires back at Slate article that eviscerates Szymanski, adminstration for cuts

by Mike McFeely

Minnesota State University Moorhead is featured front and center in a national Web publication as an example of what might happen to higher education in America -- slashing and burning academic departments to fix budget crises, while high-paid adminstrators avoid the ax -- and the good folks who work at Owens Hall in Dragonland are not happy.

Oh, there is nothing better in today's world than good Internet kerfuffle.

The article in question -- it was making the social media rounds last night -- was written by University of Missouri-St. Louis adjunct professor Rebecca Schuman and was titled "A Ghost Town With a Quad: Is that the future of the American university?" It can be found in its entirety by clicking here: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/11/minnesota_state_moorhead_could_cut_18_academic_programs_why_do_colleges.single.html

MSUM is in the crosshairs because of a $5 million budget shortfall that will be closed by proposed cuts to tenured faculty and program closures. The deficit occurred because of an 11 percent decline in enrollment in the past four years. Eighteen of MSUM's 31 departments face layoffs or program closures.

Schuman focuses on MSUM and the University of the District of Columbia for going "straight for the academic jugular" when faced with a budget crises. Writes Schuman:

What is confounding about these universities’ plans to possibly obliterate nearly half of their departments is why both institutions, faced with budget crises, went straight for the academic jugular. And not just by cutting highfalutin artsy disciplines, but with an eye toward fields of study that are actually valued in today’s cruel and fickle market. Nobody seems to notice that the structure of today’s higher-ed “business” model is backwards: It’s far easier to cut academics than it is to cut anything else, so that’s what universities are doing. The irony that the very raison d’être of a university—education!—is also its most disposable aspect seems lost on everyone (perhaps because nobody studies English, philosophy, or French anymore, so nobody recognizes irony or knows what a raison d’être is).
Schuman takes UCD to task for cutting academics while allowing the school's "decidely lackluster" athletic program to go untouched. In MSUM's case, pointing out athletics department employees are relatively low-paid, she eviscerates administrators for targeting mid-salaried professors and not themselves.

"For surely there is chopping room in MSUM's $69 million budget at the top: University President Edna Mora Szymanski makes just north of $230,000 a year, which in the Fargo hinterlands makes her a billionaire."

MSUM fired back today, issuing a statement and contacting local media for interviews (she'll be on my KFGO program at 2:10 p.m.). A statement sent from MSUM Provost Anne Blackhurst to Slate says:

A decade of declining state appropriations and fewer high school graduates present very real challenges for public higher education and the process of finding solutions is better informed when faculty and administrators work together.  This story gives the impression that shared governance has not occurred at MSU Moorhead.  But it has.   Readers should also know that the programs identified for possible reductions, restructuring or even closure came from a preliminary list prepared using quantitative data, including enrollment data.  The list was presented to the faculty for additional qualitative input.  When all is said and done, there will be changes in the academic offerings at MSU Moorhead, to be certain, though not the widespread program decimation suggested in this article.  Give us a little more time before judging the outcome.

MSUM executive director of marketing and communication David Wahlberg called me today to line up the Szymanski interview and stressed that Schuman's piece is mostly opinion stuffed around nuggets of fact. He also said the writer did not call the university for comment before running the article.

I also talked with Schuman (who will be on my program at 2:35 today) and she stands by what she wrote. She says she was tipped off by people at MSUM and used the situation to highlight what is going on nationally. That is, universities facing budget problems immediately start cutting academic departments. Often, she says, the cuts include not only "useless" disciplines like theater or art, but more "useful" things like computer science and physics.

Schuman wrote:

The problem is that MSUM targeted its closures poorly. The vast majority of MSUM’s top-earning faculty members don’t work in the 18 departments on the chopping block. Of the 72 professorial Scrooge McDucks there (who rake in between $85,000 and $135,000 annually), only 18 actually work in departments with what MSUM (and George Orwell, probably) calls “reduction potential.” The faculty top five, in fact, all of whom earn over $110,000, teach business, accounting, or education, three programs that have not been threatened at all. The truth is that most of the threatened professors at MSUM earn in the mid-five figures. But quibbling about which departments are being targeted misses the larger point: Why are academics bearing the entire weight of these cuts? A more reasonable approach to MSUM’s shortfall would have been broad cuts split evenly among faculty, staff, services, and administration, especially that last one. For surely there is chopping room in MSUM’s $69 million budget at the top: University President Edna Mora Szymanski makes just north of $230,000 a year, which in the Fargo hinterlands makes her a billionaire. So why are these administrators not sharing the opposite-of-wealth? Simple: Faculty members have no say in which areas are zoned for what MSUM calls “reduction prioritization.” The years of faculty self-governance, that all-powerful faculty senate teeming with frothy-mouthed Trotskyites, are long past. Nowadays the power to declare large swaths of higher education unfit for human study rests solely with administrators, who are obviously not going to vote to demote or “reduce” themselves.

I will say this prior to my interviews today: After talking with many people in the "rank and file" of MSUM, faculty and staff are not happy with President Szymanski and the proposed cuts. They blame the president for a flawed plan to raise the profile of the university by not allowing lesser-accomplished students in, and not having a backup plan to keep enrollment from quickly deflating. There are also those in a couple of departments who believe Szymanski was targeting students in the wrong geographic areas (the Twin Cities as opposed to traditional more local areas) when students in those areas have many choices (particularly St. Cloud State) closer to home from which to choose.

I will give the president an opportunity to respond to those questions today.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)