Time to be grateful? Or pro-active?

Indeed, these are interesting times. Many say it’s a time to be grateful that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reduced its financial support by “only 18%” –as opposed to 54% that was originally proposed. Also, it’s time to be glad that the collective bargaining agreement that governs the employment relations between faculty and coaches has not been re-negotiated; what can we expect when the first move by the faculty negotiators was to offer –not even accept—a salary freeze for the next academic year! Time to be grateful that we have jobs, right? After all, unemployment has kept stubbornly above 9% in the past months! (For details, click here.)

But, before we accept this common wisdom, take whatever the Commonwealth and the union offer and resign ourselves to a new contract with salary raises that barely match inflation (if at all!), I suggest we check some of the assumptions behind all of this gratefulness we, faculty members should have.

First of all, while it’s true that national unemployment has remained at the highest level of the decade, I believe we should examine some evidence. Consider the graph in the following link (the Bureau of Labor Statistics will probably be changing it to the most current figures as time goes by):


This figure also clearly ties to us, as faculty, in a number of ways. First, it clearly shows that what we do as teachers has significant economic (as well as cultural and intellectual) value for our students and our state --and we need to remember that and remind others of it. Moreover, this figure demonstrates that, for individuals with faculty-level qualifications, the average unemployment rate in 2010 can be as low as 1.9% for doctoral degree holders or as high as 4.0 for colleagues with only a master’s. It turns out that all those years in school, student loans, etc. do pay off!

Now, before you conclude that I’m suggesting we should all pack up and find jobs in private universities –since our state government is evidently uninterested in continuing to support rural higher education—, I will acknowledge that faculty mobility is not high, especially once one has achieved tenure. Instead, we have to be proactive in these difficult times.

I believe we must start by looking after our own basic needs. Trying to do “more with less” –or even “the same!’’—may be not only insulting, but also dangerous to our health. I already see some colleagues taking on increased workloads as a result of frozen hiring, coupled with recent retirements, smaller budgets for temporary positions, student workers, etc. Burnout may be right around the corner if we don’t take appropriate measures (see Ms. Scholar's column for suggestions clicking here).

Next, our professional development and commitment to research cannot stop! Unless there is a sudden change of heart in Harrisburg, it is quite likely that this is only the first of four, perhaps eight years of reductions in state support for our schools. We must continue to grow professionally. We also need to continue using and honing the rarest and potentially most valuable of our skills, the ability to do research. Not only do publications improve our individual résumés and collective reputation, they might be one of the strongest ways in which we differentiate our university from organizations that charge lower fees but simply cannot offer students what we can when we stay current in our fields. If our skills and reputation take a hit in the next few years, we will be unable to convince the shrinking student population that our university is worth attending, or find alternate sources of employment, should the need arise.

I am sure there are other ways to be proactive in these difficult times. If we work together to be proactive, we can be grateful to each other. I hope we do inspire and help each other find ways in which we will not only survive but thrive during these interesting times.