If I were to offer an alternative viewpoint on the recent encomiums of the Hatch Years at Wake Forest, it would run something like this:
Like many other corporations and universities throughout the United States, Wake Forest, over the past decade, has worked hard to transform its economic model by maximizing inputs and minimizing outputs.
On the one side, working from a model that resembles the kind put in place by institutions like NYU, the university has sought to extract ever-more dollars per student during this time.
It began by forcing everyone to pay for a food plan regardless of their needs, moved on to insisting that students spend two, then three years in university housing; it then required students who do overseas study with another university to pay considerable fees to Wake Forest, maximized parking costs through registrations and fines, and so on.
I’m sure I remain unaware of numerous other ways the university has done everything it can to bring in as many dollars as possible from as many students as are within reach. It is also worth noting that this transformation has taken place even as the university significantly enlarged the student population at Wake Forest.
In the midst of these increased inputs, one might ask what the additional benefits to students have been.
I find it hard to discover many, outside of the increased workout space that will appear in the coming years and the Thrive campaign we have thanks to our reliance on “thought leaders” like Katie Couric and Arianna Huffington.
On the output side, Wake Forest has worked to minimize the fixed costs of employees.
Instead of giving reasonable raises every year, Wake Forest has developed a policy of raises that barely meet the inflation rate of the previous year, if that. In exchange, it has encouraged faculty to apply for grants that provide a small sum to the employee without being added to salary or fringe-benefit costs.
In addition, Wake Forest throws in a few “family-fellow”-type grants every year that also provide small additional sums to faculty for a few years and then expire, again without adding to the fixed costs of the university (these practices have the additional benefit of increasing the power of those who allocate the funds).
With these strategies, the university has gone a long way toward lowering the percentage of resources it has to expend on its employees over time. (Due to lack of space, I won’t address the similar diminishment of the Wake Forest physicians as a result of their assimilation into Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center).
In addition, the university has added and will doubtless continue to add a considerable number of faculty positions in what used to be called “contingent” employment. This is similar to what normal corporations achieve by hiring more temporary help or relying on outsourcers for employees who can be paid less and receive fewer benefits: the people who occupy these positions make less money, work harder and don’t have the permanent job stability of the tenured faculty.
This has the benefit of keeping costs down, extracting more work for the dollar, and providing the university with a means of eliminating “excess labor” should the market for our services ever decline.
Even better, as majors rise and fall throughout the university, the administration can raise or lower the number of faculty to compensate for the (temporary or permanent) increase or decline in student majors.
Once more, this provides an ingenious way to keep costs down that seems to provide no additional benefits for students. If anything, this model offers them less because it contributes to a dissatisfied workforce that is always eager to move on to another job with tenure should one come on the horizon. As mentioned at the beginning, Wake Forest is hardly alone in changing its business model in this way. It has long been noted for following in the path of other institutions, going back at least as far as the era when we started including timber purchases in our endowment because places like Harvard did.
Nevertheless, these demeaning practices are more problematic at a smaller institution like Wake Forest, and it is too bad that we have chosen to follow the leaders to the bottom rather than charting our own path.
Students, faculty and staff deserve better, to say nothing for those alumni who are so generous in their gifts to an institution that increasingly only dimly resembles the one to which they think they are contributing.