Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Clay Shirky’s Adjunct Math

with 10 comments

Other people have already taken up Clay Shirky’s latest more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece about how we just can’t afford the university anymore in these tough times. I just wanted to check the math about adjuncts.

I recently saw this pattern in my home institution. Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.

Now NYU is relatively well off, but we do not have a spare quarter of a billion dollars per annum, not even for a good cause, not even if we sold the mineral rights under Greenwich Village.

The operating budget of NYU in fiscal year 2014 is $6.5 billion. $250 million is a shade under 4% of that number. 4% is a lot to cut out of a budget — you couldn’t do it overnight — but it’s not some impossible goal either. It wouldn’t take a ton of long-term planning and reorganization to cut down 4% over a period of, say, five years. I know a lot of academic units have been made to cut deeper than that in recent years. (UPDATE: See the comments for what the math looks like if you cordon off the hospital funds.)

This seems eminently doable and something the university should absolutely prioritize.

Hilariously, $5 million to $250 million is not that far off from 3.8%; it’s 2%. 2% is a paltry sum, not even worth discussing next to the whole. One sentence later, 3.8% is a king’s ransom we could literally never find even if we sold the mineral rights to Greenwich Village.

Written by gerrycanavan

January 30, 2014 at 1:11 pm

10 Responses

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  1. The $6.5 billion figure is for New York University, whose budget is $2.8B, _plus_ the NYU hospital system, whose revenues are mostly non-academic, and are administered separately. The hospital system’s budget is $3.8B.

    Salaries and benefits make up 54% of NYU’s 2014 budget, or $1.5B of the $2.8B.

    $250M is 17% of $1.5B.

    $5M (the proposed savings on administrative salaries) is 0.3% of $1.5B. (Another way to see this is that $5M is 2% of $250M, meaning the $5M savings would leave 98% of the proposed increase in faculty salaries unfunded.)

    Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

    January 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    • Someone on Twitter just made the same suggestion about cutting out the hospital, which seems reasonable. But the second move doesn’t — there’s no reason that you couldn’t take the money for salary growth out of other parts of operations.

      10% (.25 billion out of 2.8 billion) is obviously significantly tougher than 3.8% — more than twice as hard! But it’s still not insurmountable. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the University of California was forced to cut its budget by 20% in a single year in 2009; subsequent budgets restored about half the lost funding, or around 10%. Even if I give NYU ten years instead of five to do it, this is not impossible with planning if the administration cared to make it a priority — even before we start talking about all of NYU’s new construction (itself totaling in the billions).


      January 30, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      • Let me just clarify my own math there. UC lost 20% of state funding in 2009, which is around 2% of its total operating budget and around 8% of its “core” funds (I think). So it’s apples to oranges to say 10% = 10%, which wasn’t what I was trying to say — just that big budget shifts are possible with short notice, much less with the smoother timeline of half a decade or more. Throwing up your hands and saying “gee, a quarter of a billion dollars is a lot of money!” is extremely misleading given the amount of money that’s passing through NYU.


        January 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      • I’d go with “_more_ than more than twice as hard”, for the same reason that you could imagine cutting, say, Federal spending by 2% based on fraud and waste, but not 10%. Cut 10% of most organizations, and you’re hitting bone.

        The relevant point about this difficulty is your assertion that $250M is roughly 2X of $5M, when it’s in fact 50x. A $5M reduction for all of the highest paid employees would indeed be a cultural re-set of NYUs priorities, but it would not get us anywhere near covering conversion of contingent labor to tenure-track salaries. (98% not, in fact.)

        And here’s the rub: if NYU said it wanted to swing $250M to contingent labor salaries entirely through cuts to other areas, those cuts would almost certainly have to fall on the largest sources of current expenditures, which include salary, health care and pension for tenure-track faculty. Though contingent faculty outnumber us, our cumulative compensation dwarfs theirs.

        After saving money on heating, say, or dining halls or what have you, you’d still be looking at a university in which me and my tenured peers were paid less than we are now, and were less lavishly supported in our pensions and housing allowances. (I have a 3BR/2.5 bath apartment in Greenwich Village for less than half of market rent, and I’m ordinary tenured faculty.)

        Let me be clear about this: an NYU in which the pay differences between adjuncts, clinical faculty, tenure-track, and star professors was much smaller would be a much better place.

        But in the same way we can’t compress the gap between the 1% and the 99% without taxing the 1%, we can’t get all the money needed to benefit contingent faculty or students without taxing me and my tenured peers. And my post amounts to a bet that my tenured peers will never allow any such thing to happen.

        Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

        January 30, 2014 at 3:09 pm

      • I don’t follow your objection to the comparison between 5M and 250M and .25B and 6.5B. The point is that in both cases the first number is a comparatively small fraction of the second number — but since you don’t provide any “whole budget” number to compare the .25B to you misleadingly leave the impression that it’s an insurmountably large percentage. But whether you cordon off the hospital funds or not it’s still absolutely within the realm of the attainable, especially over a long enough timetable — just as would be half-measures that get adjuncts halfway to decent wages rather than all the way in one go.

        Your point about T/TT faculty at NYU being a block to budget cuts that would require they sacrifice is a fair one, though not necessarily determinative. But I also don’t think the only money available at NYU is salaries; it’s simply not the case that the only hope for adjuncts is to cut T/TT salaries by 17% tomorrow.


        January 30, 2014 at 3:18 pm

  2. The $5M point is this. You say “Hilariously, $5 million to $250 million is not that far off from 3.8%; it’s 2%.”

    That’s not true. $250M is very far off from $5M. It’s 50x (5000%) more, in fact.

    And I disagree about ‘not necessarily determinative’ — I do not think my tenured peers would voluntarily bear much sacrifice to help either our students or our junior peers. (Many tenured faculty do not even regard non-tenured faculty as peers at all, of course, which is what caste systems are like.)

    And less than half of NYU’s budget is for everything other than salary; I’m not arguing that a 17% haircut is the only hope for contingent faculty. What I am arguing is that anyone proposing salary parity (or even significant reduction in inequality) is perforce proposing a tax on tenured faculty, which we will fight tooth and nail.

    My bet, in other words, is that most academic institutions are so committed to current conditions of inequality that we will be unable to adapt to present conditions, because that adaptation would require reining in elites, and we are terrible at that.

    Also, I see from your side Twitter feed that people are still circulating the 4% figure. Would you mind tweeting out that now you think it’s 10%?

    Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

    January 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    • I think you’re misreading that sentence (or else I was unclear); you’re dropping out the actual comparison, which is 2% to 3.8%. My whole point is that you treat 250M as a huge amount of money compared to 5M (50x larger! 5000%) without noting that NYU’s total operating budget looms similarly large over 250M.

      We’re very close together on the meat of this, it seems like; what I was objecting to was that adding the context for NYU’s total budget makes 250M seem achievable (if painful) after all. I’m not saying it would be easy — I’m saying it’s not on the scale of “selling the mineral rights to Greenwich Village.” It’s doable, and partial measures that would improve adjunct wages without getting all them all the way to FT/TT are doable as well, without the radical infusion of unthinkable levels of cash from oil wells. It’s in NYU’s ballpark.

      I’ve tweeted out the update a few times, but I’ll go ahead and do it again…


      January 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

  3. Ah, I did indeed misread that, my apologies. Now I see where the difference is, and it comes back to institutional dynamics.

    From my point of view, administrative bloat is the new climbing wall, the thing that my colleagues believe is the source of our current financial woes. I think this view is wrong. There are examples of overpaid administrators doing useless jobs, but this money, even if 100% were recovered, would do little to address the much larger shortfall.

    In particular, the point about 50x is that the AAUP never mentioned that their proposed increases in spending came nowhere near being covered by their proposed cuts — having to come up with $245M is not that much different than having to come up with $250M, which is to say the AAUPs demands don’t say much about how their steady conversion would be obtained.

    So we are left with having to infer where that $245M would come from. If I can re-state your point of view, it’s that even partial attempts to close that gap are worthwhile, and that much of the money could be found, and without discomfiting the faculty beneficiaries of the current system.

    I agree on the first point (indeed, unionization has done far more to improve the lives of our adjuncts than the AAUP has ever done), but not on points 2 and 3, nor do I believe that any incremental improvements in contingent labor would disrupt the caste system that the modern research university has become.

    You believe (or: I read you to believe) that there are places where $10s of millions can be saved in daily operations, without arousing the ire of me and my tenured peers, and I don’t, but more detail about this disagreement stymied at this point by the relative opacity of NYU’s budget beyond the numbers you and I are both looking for.

    I am looking for more granular numbers, which might make any next phase of this conversation more interesting.

    Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

    January 30, 2014 at 5:03 pm

  4. Very relevant to the present discussion: Timothy Burke’s latest post:


    February 1, 2014 at 11:32 am

    • I just read that too and was thinking about it in this context as well. I definitely agree with both Clay and Burke that realigning the budgets of universities towards the sort of distribution I find more desirable will be painful and require real sacrifices. I don’t think there’s 5-10% pure waste in NYU’s budget at all. But I think there’s definitely *some* waste, plus some badly misplaced priorities, plus some things that would be really great to develop if you were already at a place where you were paying all your workers a sufficient wage but are obscene to prioritize over solving adjunctification, and some things that gun-to-my-head I’d have to cut in favor of paying contingent faculty more even if they’re projects I really support. “It’s complicated” is the right response to university operations and budgets, but Burke’s absolutely right that you have to start with a realistic understanding of how these things have happened and what forces are causing them to happen if you want to oppose longstanding trends, rather than beginning with mere rhetorical posturing and sloganeering and fantasyland budgets. I’ve been complaining all morning on Twitter that at this point discussion about the university online has been basically entirely swallowed up by clickbait publications that don’t care about facts or even being logically self-consistent as long as ads are getting eyeballs.


      February 1, 2014 at 12:08 pm

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