Little is as professionally difficult as being told you must do more tomorrow than you did today because of external issues unrelated to your job performance. Oh, and with fewer resources. But this is the reality facing many public sector employees, and this is my reality at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. In my five years here my travel money has been cut to $400, my teaching load increased to a 4-3, and my department cut to just three faculty members. During the same time period I’ve published consistently, received good teaching evaluations, and watched our MPA program grow from 58 to 80 students. We’ve launched new online programming, and new emphases in areas like nonprofit management. As important, my colleagues are awesome. They publish, innovate, and contribute to the health and vibrancy of our field, our university, and our community.
In short, our program is doing great things, and poised to do even better things.
Hence it is an odd time of consistently good news within my program, and mostly bad news coming from the outside. People are reacting to our resource challenges in different ways. Some faculty members have left. Many more have been tempted to leave. Some are organizing to create a union presence. Some are understandably cutting back on research. In some quarters morale is suffering. I myself am choosing to have a positive attitude. Why?
It’s not the university’s fault. Ok, no doubt the university is not perfect, and questionable management in the past is at least a partial cause of the challenges we face today. But our primary resource challenges are a function of political decisions beyond the university’s control. Changing demographics are also a major factor. It is hard for me to fault the current university administration; someone has to make these tough decisions.
It’s what I signed up for. As I tell my students, part of working in the public sector is living under a level of political control. No, my dean is not a politician, nor is the rest of the university’s leadership, but fiscal and policy decisions are subject to the political whims of the day. I do not like getting resources cut, but having worked in politics I understand that these things can and do happen.
I’m stubborn. We all create our own personal narratives to a degree, so allow me to share one of my foundational anecdotes. When doing my dissertation research I sought cooperation from professional entities that would have made my work a lot easier. They declined to cooperate, which only increased my enthusiasm for doing the project. It was harder, but I was not going to allow others to dictate my course of action.
We can be creative. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think Abe Lincoln said that (this is a multi-level Bob Dylan reference for the uninitiated). Resources can come from many places. Personally it is hard to complain about cuts in travel money when I still get to travel to present research on a regular basis. The money for this travel comes from external grants and organizations willing to fund my talks. I have to be proactive, and often have to turn good opportunities down, but so far it is working. Other creative solutions, like collaboration between departments, partnerships with organizations outside the university, and multi-campus collaborations are occurring as well. Universities are populated by smart people adept at finding creative solutions to difficult problems. An unintended positive impact of our challenges may be the unleashing of these creative forces.
Things change. I am confident the resource environment will improve. This may be a political change, the realization of our university’s right-sizing goals, or the creation of a university bureaucracy that is more personalized to the goals and talents of individual professors. Why not play to our strengths? Give those who publish more the time and resources to continue to publish. Let those that teach best teach more classes and get rewarded for it. Let those that serve best serve more. I realize it is much more complex than my simplistic presentation, but I do think incentive structures within the university bureaucracy can be individualized to the benefit of all.
Our work is important. I see it when a student has a break through. I see it when a piece of research impacts practice or a policy debate. I see it when our graduates do great things in their communities. I see it in our collaborations with practitioners. I refuse to allow something like reduced travel money or increased teaching loads dilute the positive impact our program is having.
Perhaps I am delusional, but I prefer to simply control what I can control. I cannot unliterary solve the resource and political challenges faced by my university. But I can work hard every day to provide the best student experience I can, do my part to contribute to a positive work environment, and produce research that advances practice and my field. So that is what I choose to do. I figure any positive impact I have in a difficult resource environment will only be magnified when things improve.