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The Effect of State Budget Cuts on the Department Climate

The human side of austerity.
By Susan K. Gardner, Amy Blackstone, Shannon K. McCoy, and Daniela Véliz

One professor at State University (a pseudonym) illustrates how budget cuts affect the morale and well-being of faculty:

I have had to give up fried food in my diet. I have had to attempt to exercise more and lose weight. I have had to curtail risky behavior of riding on the back of my friend’s motorcycle and taking airplane rides in my friend’s plane—this is because I cannot afford to be sick, injured, or die early because I would feel very guilty if I have to leave my faculty position. If I were forced to leave and no one were hired in my place I am afraid our program will be forced to close down. . . . I may have to keep teaching until I am 80 or 85 just to keep the program going. This really does create stress in my life.

State University, like many of its public higher-education peers, has faced multiple cuts to the budget allocated to it by the state. The response above came on a survey about department climate conducted by our team of researchers, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Specifically, we were interested in learning the role department climate played in job satisfaction and retention.

An academic department exists as an organizational structure within a college or university setting. An organization’s climate is “the atmosphere or ambience of an organization as perceived by its members.. . . [and] is reflected in its structures, policies, and practices; the demographics of its membership; the attitudes and values of its members and leaders; and the quality of personal interactions,” according to the University of Wisconsin Committee on Women in the University’s Work Group on Climate. We utilized this definition in the preamble to our survey distributed to twenty-three academic departments at State University in spring 2012. Of the 486 tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty and staff members who were asked to complete it, exactly 50 percent responded. What we learned was that budget cuts were seen as the primary explanation for negative climates. Faculty members felt that the greatest negative impact on their day-today experiences resulted from things entirely beyond their department’s control.

Surprising Survey Results 

As Kelly Ward claims in Faculty Careers and Work Lives: A Professional Growth Perspective, “Every aspect of higher education is influenced by a talented and diverse faculty.” A vital faculty is integral to a vital college or university. The academic department plays a central role in the faculty member’s work life. As Burton Clark says in The Academic Life: Small Worlds, Different Worlds, the academic department is “the basic unit of organization because it is where the imperatives of the discipline and the institution converge.” The department becomes the place where the curriculum is created and disseminated, workloads are distributed, mentoring is promulgated, and hiring and promotion decisions are made; the department is the locus of the faculty member’s life on campus.

What impact do external matters have on faculty perceptions of the department climate? While a plethora of research has documented how a campus’s larger context can shape the perceptions of women faculty and faculty and students of color, few studies have examined how the external environment can influence day-to-day interactions and satisfaction levels of individual faculty members.

We expected survey responses about a lack of voice in departmental decision making and interpersonal conflicts in negative department climates. We did not anticipate hearing how much individuals’ day-today perceptions of their departments were shaped by budget cuts that had been handed down from the state level. Of the twenty-three departments examined, only three did not mention issues related to budget cuts as negative aspects of their department climates.

We asked members of these twenty-three academic departments to assess their climate on a series of items, asking them to rate their department’s climate on a scale of 1 (very negative) to 5 (very positive) as well as asking a set of two open-ended questions requesting that faculty list the five items that contributed to a positive climate and five items that contributed to a negative climate. The mean score of all twenty-three departments surveyed was 3.77, with a standard deviation of 0.63, indicating that the majority of faculty felt their department climates were moderately positive.

It was the open-ended responses that demonstrated the impact of budget cuts. The finding was consistent across all disciplines and in both positively and negatively rated departments. Faculty lists of ways budget cuts directly and indirectly influenced their departments’ climates included (a) lack of funding, (b) unfilled faculty positions, resulting in unreasonable workloads, and (c) a declining physical plant.

Lack of Funding

Faced with a lack of funds from the state, public institutions like State University seek alternate ways to plug budget holes, including recruiting more students or encouraging more extramural funding and expecting faculty “to do more with less.” This last
strategy, according to responders, causes problems in departments:

  • Budget cuts and frozen salaries. This is bigger than the department but it is a source of negative feelings. Rising enrollment with diminishing faculty positions. Investing considerable time and effort to recruit more students but given no additional resources to accommodate them.”
  • “There is a lack of resources and funding overall. Faculty are not being replaced and bringing in more students and more grants is not rewarded. This campus does not incentivize or reward productivity. We are all cut the same amount no matter how productive or inventive we are.”
  • “Massive pressure to increase student numbers without support to handle increased numbers.” 

While recruiting more students may seem a relatively easy way to stem the budgetary hemorrhage, this presupposes that faculty lines and institutional infrastructure stay the same or even increase. However, fewer faculty plus more students may not equal success. Multiple studies have demonstrated that increased class size has a statistically significant, negative influence on student achievement. If bigger classes result in less achievement, an institution aiming to fill budget gaps by increasing enrollment may be ultimately shooting itself in the foot, particularly in light of the many performance-based funding models that are now appearing.

Unfilled Faculty Positions

Budget cuts have forced State University, and institutions like it, to freeze hiring. The upper administration has been barred from filling vacancies, much less creating new faculty positions. State University faculty have seen a significant reduction of tenure-track hires over the past decade. Given the numbers of retirements (the average age of State University faculty is fifty-four) and voluntary departures, State University faculty are required to take on the additional work of unfilled faculty lines. Several survey responses illustrate this:

  • “Too few faculty members for too many students. Too small of a budget to facilitate academics and research.”
  • “Lack of faculty. Lack of resources. Overworked. Small faculty with fewer people to share responsibilities.”
  • “The policy of the university system is that if a professor leaves his position, the position will not be filled.”
  • “We have lost nearly half of our department in a five-year period and have no idea what the future holds for us.”

State University faculty are simply being asked to do more. Anxiety about unreasonable workloads was common in the responses:

  • “Workload has doubled in the last 10 years.”
  • “Like many academic departments, we are spread very thinly, with more demands on our time, coupled with inadequate resources. Things have gotten to a point that education experiences have been greatly diminished for both graduate and undergraduate students.”
  • “Very high student to faculty ratio.”

Not only do new faculty members help with the existing duties and responsibilities of the department, but they also provide new perspectives and insights. While many veteran faculty members seem to have delayed retirement because of the economic decline of the past decade, ultimately faculty retirements will occur. Given a declining senior faculty and dwindling opportunities to replace them, the rising workload may fall into the laps of midcareer or associate professors, who have already been found to have a lower level of job satisfaction. The situation puts associate professors between a rock and a hard place and does not bode well for their longevity at such an institution.

Declining Physical Plant

At first blush, a declining physical plant may not seem to have much to do with a department’s climate. In his essay “The Concept of Organizational Climate,” Renato Tagiuri, however, includes what he refers to as the ecology of the organization as part of his conceptualization of organizational climate, including the physical environment in which people work. In the survey, faculty expressed these sentiments:

  • “I hesitate to say that these are features of the department but obviously declining classroom infrastructure. ‘Doing more with less’ can have an impact upon morale and increase stress levels.”
  • “Inadequate and unsafe laboratory facilities and no technical support for them.” 
  • “Tiny offices, paint peeling off the walls, leaking ceilings, financial limitations.”
  • “There are ongoing maintenance, safety, etc. issues that can sometimes make it difficult to conduct my work. Having reliable phones, internet, heat, and even water (all of which have failed more than once in the past calendar year) are fundamental, yet fail to be adequately maintained. I would not expect that this department will be able to retain quality faculty if these conditions aren’t looked at from a long-term perspective and proactively addressed.”

The declining physical environment surrounding State University faculty contributes to both low morale and perhaps ultimately to faculty attrition.


When asked about negative characteristics, a faculty member who positively rated climate remarked, “There are very few such aspects. When such negativity does occasionally manifest itself, it is almost invariably as a result of forces outside the department, in effect forcing us into unpleasant situations.” This points to the resiliency of the faculty but also to the impact of the external fiscal environment. In turn, the long-term effects of even one year of drastic cuts may create negative climates for faculty.

So, what can be done?

Institutions such as State University are working in a zero-sum model, wherein the losses that they are experiencing from budget cuts must be managed through creative ways that ultimately fall on the shoulders of already overworked faculty. State University has asked its faculty to teach and advise more students without providing more people or resources to support the effort, and it has asked its faculty to pursue more extramural funding—all while State University is losing faculty lines through retirements and voluntary departures. In essence, such institutions are faced with no-win scenarios. While short-term efforts like increased student enrollment may seem to provide a remedy, in the long-term, these efforts are shortsighted.

Places such as State University should move beyond Band-Aid approaches to budgetary shortfalls and consider how more strategic, long-term efforts might better serve their faculty, staff, and students. While I do not dismiss the need for more creative student recruitment strategies or the use of indirect monies from external grants, these efforts must be complemented by the structures and resources needed to support them. As the old adage goes, “It takes money to make money.” Hiring grant management staff may relieve the administrative burden on already overworked faculty. Hiring lab support staff and investing more in graduate assistants provides more support to faculty members. Similarly, providing incentives to overburdened faculty through indirect cost returns, or a proportion of the overhead costs charged on many external grants—however small—might improve morale.

To be sure, the expansion of academic programs and services has been a strategy to recruit more students and seek more external funding support. At the same time, a dwindling faculty with diminished resources cannot continue to support the myriad academic programs and services expected of them. Institutions may need to consider to how best highlight strengths and work toward investing in them while divesting under resourced or less populated programs. This would require State University not to eliminate positions but rather to work smarter.

Interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary efforts, if given adequate support and resources, may help solve difficult staffing issues while also creating innovative new programs that could attract more students and external funds. Partnering with other public institutions to combine resources and programs may also be beneficial. Differentiated workloads among faculty may be another way for individual faculty to capitalize on their strengths and interests and for the department to provide recognition and support for them. Having such initiatives and efforts led by the faculty or, at the very least, heavily influenced by faculty input will be invaluable to sustaining morale in the long term.

Faculty can continue to be supported in difficult economic times. Faculty respondents to our survey commonly expressed the feeling that they were underappreciated, saying, “Chair does not acknowledge the achievements or contributions of faculty members,” or “My hard work is not appreciated,” and even, “It seems like males get a lot more press for things they do when compared to females.” In these cases, it would have cost nothing for department chairs, deans, and the upper administration to express appreciation to their faculty, to extend congratulations for accomplishments, and to ensure gender equity in providing such feedback. In these economically deprived environments, a sincere “thank you” could go a long way.

Susan K. Gardner currently serves as the associate dean of accreditation and graduate affairs at the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development, and as co-primary investigator of the National Science Foundation’s ADVA NCE grant on campus. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Amy Blackstone is associate professor and chair of sociology and director of the ADVA NCE Rising Tide Center at the University of Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]. Shannon K. McCoy is associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine. Daniela Véliz is a research associate with the Center for Research on Educational Policy and Practice at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

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