Mass firing in the History department at Boise State

This past week, the History department chair sent out an e-mail with the subject line “Grim News.” In the e-mail, she detailed extensive cuts to the History department’s funding, apparently emerging from the Provost’s office. Among the cuts are:

  • The Public History faculty line I recently vacated
  • 2/3 of the funds we use to support graduate assistants
  • Two lecturerships
  • A visiting lecturership
  • All adjunct funding

I’ll have something more substantive to say about this soon, but right now I’m grief-stricken.

In the meantime, you can read this Idaho Statesman article to get a sense of the university’s party line. As you might imagine, though, “declining enrollment” is not the whole story.

I’ll leave you with these tidbits, calculated by one of our endangered lecturers, who used to work in college finance and administration:

The department offered 49 full-semester 3-credit courses with 1,385 students total in Spring 2015. Of these:

  • 17 classes with 556 students were taught by tenure/tenure-track faculty (41%)
  • 15 classes with 449 students were taught by 3.5 lecturers (33%)
  • 14 classes with 340 students were taught by 8 adjuncts (24%)
  • 3 classes with 40 students were taught by full-time faculty not housed entirely in the history department (2%)

The lecturer estimates the department’s instructional expenses constitute less than 45% of the revenue it brings in through teaching alone, and that there’s no way the now diminished tenure-line faculty can accommodate all of the students currently being taught by lecturers and adjuncts. Even trying to accommodate them will mean History faculty won’t have time to do research during the academic year. Currently we have two NEH fellows, an NSF fellow, a Fulbright scholar, and the editor of a top journal—as well as everyone else’s research agendas—so our department isn’t exactly shirking its research responsibilities. Many of us have also service commitments that already are untenable.


  1. Bardiac says:

    I’ve missed news about Idaho’s budget problems. I’m so sorry to hear this. Are other departments in similar difficulties?

    • Leslie M-B says:

      Yes. The Community and Regional Planning Department has been cut completely. It’s an amazing department, relatively new. IMHO, the university didn’t give the program enough time to get on its feet and recruiting grad students. Already, though, that department was doing terrific work in the community.

      I expect the budget ax to fall heavily in other places, too. Want to place any bets? (Hmmmmm… Rhymes with “Bumanities”?)

  2. Contingent Cassandra says:

    That’s scary — and, indeed, very sad. It’s also hard to understand the underlying logic, because, yes, the numbers don’t seem to add up — unless, of course, someone wanted to accelerate (or at least didn’t mind accelerating) the rate of declining enrollments.

    One possible clue from conversations around my institution (a state R2 that has an explicit goal of becoming an R1): there’s a definite belief, at least among administrators who see institutions through spreadsheets, that there’s a connection between being “research-oriented” and large, lecture-style classes. I’m sure there’s considerable variation hidden in the numbers you give above, but it sounds like sections average out to c. 30 students, which is a pedagogically sound number, but probably not what your administrators want. They’d probably like to see sections 2-4 (or more) times as large, perhaps with a couple of TAs (though why anybody would go to grad school when things are trending this way escapes me; that seems to be a part of the picture that escapes some of the supposedly “big-picture” planners. You’d think they’d like public history, though, for all the wrong reasons: jobs outside academe. But I guess an open line is an open line.) As far as I can tell, they don’t really care, either way, about the potential usefulness of what students learn in humanities classes; the problem is that our pedagogical model doesn’t look good on a spreadsheet.

    • Leslie M-B says:

      I absolutely agree with your analysis, Cassandra. The problem here is that they’ve also cut our grad student funding, so we couldn’t have large classes even if we wanted to. (We currently have a few.)

      Our tenure-line faculty also have a light teaching load because this year or next we have multiple people on sabbatical, Fulbright, and fellowships. Add in journal editing, internship coordination, graduate program coordinator, being department chair, and other major administrative duties, and we have a lot of faculty with course releases.

      Of course, on paper, our research agendas might not look as productive as some other departments because historians, like many humanists, tend to write long articles as single authors. Compare that with disciplines, especially in the social sciences–and we’ve been in a social sciences college–where papers are short and have multiple authors, so faculty can publish several in a year.

      In my ideal world, we’d have tenure-line faculty as well as lecturers, but with pay equity. I’d prefer not to have adjuncts except in emergency situations. I’d love to see our current funding applied more equitably, and of course additional funding would be great. As would rainbow unicorns prancing around campus.

  3. Random Waterfowl says:

    We have four TTF replacements coming up next year. We expect to get zero. The only thing protecting us from rampant admin expansion of our workloads is the fact that we unionized a couple of years ago (it’s also the only reason we got raises for the first time in ten years). It seems that in history, our bean-counter led nest of deans thinks that we can just scale up all the classes and it will be exactly the same as before–despite the fact that we’re losing two major US subfields and there are major countries in Europe with no coverage at all, and we have a strong writing demand and very active mentorship practices. And this is an R1 (though not for long, what with the simultaneous cutting of grad admissions and support).

    • Leslie M-B says:

      I wish we were unionized. Alas, Idaho is a “Right to Work” state, so even if we unionized, we would have little power.

      I’m so sorry you’re going through similar cuts. I don’t understand the hostility toward the humanities.

      • Random Waterfowl says:

        I think the cuts are everywhere. I should have said that we can count on none of the replacements; they might surprise us, and we’re making the best case we can. The trouble is that even though they know we teach analytical reasoning and state that the skills we confer are valuable, they can’t be monetized directly so their budgetary value is nil. Add a bizarre budget model that attempts to model the university along the lines of a corporation that determines profitability of its subsidiaries, and you get this drive for larger classes and fewer overhead costs, which further degrades the quality of the whole.

        Preaching to the choir, I know, but thanks for letting me vent anyway.

  4. Betty Cook says:

    HI there. I came to this post because a friend of a friend posted it on Facebook, I don’t know anyone at Boise personally. But I was struck by this post, and felt compelled to comment. I am contingent at a financially strapped SLAC institution that has been slashing through departments (mine and several others, all Bumanities 😉 for some time, so I feel for your department, absolutely. But I have to say, your post seems to cut to the heart of another problem, the weakness of allyship between tenured and non-tenured people. What you described is that several people, adjuncts and lecturers, have just lost their jobs for next year, perhaps jobs they depended on, in March (i.e. late in the hiring season for the next academic year). In your post, you lament the fact that in this new era tenured or TT faculty will have a harder time furthering their research goals, and yes, these certainly effects individuals in adverse ways, specifically in the way it changes the terms of their employment. But without a word to the perhaps detrimental effects the loss of employment will mean to your un-tenured colleagues (despite the fact that one of them compiled the data for you) caught my eye. Clearly, the departments themselves depend on contingent labor and certainly aren’t welcoming these kinds of cuts, it seems radical and will change dramatically the work your colleagues do. But in the face of administrative pressure to make “sacrifices” for some real or imaginary “fiscal emergency” (you are right, this is not, as you say above, the “whole story”) it is all the more dire that a department refuses a two-tiered (or three-tiered) hierarchy were some people’s labor conditions are valued and others are not (or not as much).

    • Leslie M-B says:

      I appreciate your reading of my portrayal of the labor crisis in my blog post, Betty. It does look as if I’m more concerned for the tenure-line folks; that’s not really the case, however.

      In the short term, I’m worried about paychecks and respect for our lecturers and adjuncts. In the longer term (six months to two years and beyond), I’m worried about the quality of students’ experience in the History department. If our classes are larger, we won’t be able to give them the individual attention they need to improve as writers and researchers, or to coach them for the job market. (I’m not sure about my colleagues, but I read a lot of student résumés, make introductions, and arrange internships.)

      For now, please know that offline I’m doing everything I can to help my colleagues get continued employment by advocating for continued funding for them by speaking to my legislators, university administration, and the press; introducing them to other departments and units that might provide continued employment; and coaching them before phone and on-campus interviews. My tenure-line colleagues are doing much the same.

      We would LOVE to have more tenure-line jobs–we ask for additional lines regularly–but the administration turns us down and tells us we already have too many lines. In the past and today, most of our lecturers have been adjuncts we promoted eagerly, and recently, when a tenure line opened up, we moved a lecturer into that position. There definitely is a hierarchy imposed by funding limitations, but we do advocate for each other. I wish Idaho were not a “Right to Work” state because I would be on the front lines of unionization, having benefited from unions myself as a graduate student at two different universities (as a T.A. and graduate instructor, I was a member of the UAW and UE, both excellent unions).

      On a personal note, I understand the adjunct and lecturer plight because I have been both. In fact, it was my continued adjunct status that led me to seek employment elsewhere at the university before I landed (after five years on the job market) a tenure-track job. And it was in large part my inability to support my family on my tenure-track paycheck (after taxes, I was bringing home about $28,000 a year, which is about half what it costs to live here) that made me seek a different position at the university. I now work 12 months at the intersection of pedagogy and technology, and I teach part-time in History. I get it, I really do. I understand my privilege and use it when I can to improve the lot of students and faculty.

      • Betty Cook says:

        Thanks for the long response Leslie. I really was only responding to the post itself, not trying to cast judgement on the whole of your efforts vis contingent labor. My perspective is also somewhat colored by my own situation, in which there is surely an abstract good-will toward the non-tenured by tenured folk, but a scant amount of real solidarity. There has also a fair amount of hand-ringing in the national media (CHE and the like) by tenured folk who imagine themselves to be speaking, sometimes in lofty tones, for the “profession” when in fact they come across as blind to the elitism of their concerns. But it sounds like you are really engaged at a very high level, and your colleagues and students are very lucky.
        The question, or rather maybe call it a “trend”, toward cutting faculty resources (writ large, everything from cutting lines, departmental photocopying budgets, money allocated for adjunct-taught courses–all of which are operative at my institution currently) is pretty fascinating (in a macabre way, as I am possibly loosing my job this year). I am not at an R1, but what we could call a “teaching-focused” institution. Most departments do not and have never had graduate students, there is an expectation that one teaches a 4-4 (most people teach above it, and often unpaid), etc. The “cuts” all come with a kind of half-hearted apology about the institution managing some kind of fiscal crisis. But this is not the real crisis. Yes, there is less money, because of federal and state cuts, general economic downturn and lower enrollments, but watching the new buildings go up and the new non-faculty hires, this is clearly not the crisis. The crisis seems to be situated at the intersection of corporate concern for profitability, and a complete disinterest in real contours of the “product” the corporation has traditionally been selling. You are right, it will effect your students, or rather, it will effect students when people who otherwise work above code (which everyone is doing all the time) simply can’t anymore, or refuse. And this is the funny irony about the gesture of slashing and burning faculty resources, as the losers are the students. . . again, in the event that faculty are able to stand in solidarity with each other, and do not succumb to the rhetoric that I am sorry to say is the case at my institution: “we all have to do our part” “efficiency maximization is crucial for student learning” “if you love your work, and your students, this is just the reality” etc. etc.
        I thought “right to work” was less that unions were not “allowed” but that they couldn’t charge dues (but still needed to broker agreements, under federal law). I guess not being able to sustain themselves can amount to not being “allowed” though. I don’t see any other way out of this beyond unionization. I really don’t. It is not a conversation at my institution, sadly I think because there is a disinclination for the tenured to think of themselves as “labor” and somehow in the same boat as other “kinds” of instructors. When you see a (big, and by your numbers quite healthy, i.e. you have an average of 32 students per tenured-taught course!!!) department get an ax like yours, and the kind of ripple effect it will have down the line, it is just insane to think we are not in the same boat.

  5. So, the long and the short of it is, the university is rapidly becoming a second rate school, little better than a trade school, and unlikely to turn out any students capable of thinking for themselves.

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