“Crisis” Language Used to Justify Extraordinary Measures

To the Editors:

A familiar refrain echoes across the country: institutions of higher education are wracked by “budget crises.” Oberlin, we are told over and over, is no exception. Our troubles are now receiving widespread attention. Inside Higher Ed, a major publication that considers the state of higher education in the U.S., recently published an article about our “budget crunch.”

Certainly, many institutions of higher education, including Oberlin, are struggling. But this talk of “budget crises” is neither neutral nor innocent. Administrators and (in the case of public institutions) state officials often talk and act as if they are objective circumstances in which we find ourselves and about which we must scratch our heads and make “hard choices.” This is entirely misleading. Budget crises are the results of prior decisions, good or bad, present priorities, and visions for the future. The language of “crisis” obscures all that and serves to justify extraordinary measures — much like political declarations of “states of emergency” do and have done. These are framed as necessary responses to objective conditions when they are, in fact, deliberate choices that reflect decision makers’ priorities.

In recent years, Oberlin’s chosen responses have included salary freezes, cuts to visiting professor positions, the passive gutting of the Office of Disability Services (by failing to replace staff), the cutting of department administrative assistants and custodial staff, and two rounds of VSIPs, or “Voluntary Separation Incentive Programs,” to encourage retirement. The consequences of the first four for faculty morale and recruitment, department course offerings, the functioning of academic departments, for students with disabilities, and for the state of College facilities are fairly obvious. Equally obvious are the consequences for the livelihoods of hard-working staff who are vital to the operation of the College. On its surface, the VSIP appears more neutral — it simply offers incentives for faculty to retire earlier than they otherwise might. But when you offer incentives, you structure people’s choices — they remain voluntary, but they are also constrained. When combined with salary freezes, the idea that they are strictly “voluntary” for faculty becomes somewhat suspect.

All of these choices can and should be debated vigorously, as they are and will continue to be. But we must never forget that they are choices. They reflect what and who we think matter, and they send clear messages to diverse audiences. Are these the messages we want to be sending?