History under the Hammer: Department Chairs Report Effects of Economic Woes

Robert B. Townsend, January 2011

A majority of history departments across the country are suffering from budget cuts this year, but not all are suffering equally. An AHA survey of department chairs last October found that departments at many (if not most) public institutions are suffering from deep and painful cuts to their budgets, while departments at private institutions were getting by relatively unscathed.

The survey was sent to 696 department chairs in programs listed in the AHA’s Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians, and received responses from 219 chairs (215 in the United States and 4 in Canada).1 A majority of the respondents in the U.S. reported that they had experienced some curtailment of their budgets, but these ranged quite widely—from modest reductions in their supplies budget to deep and painful cuts in faculty, support staff, and materials.

The effects varied widely depending on the financing and administration of particular aspects of the department’s budget, but economic problems in departments were generally felt through reductions in one or more of four revenue sources—general operating funds (for supplies and day-to-day operations), salaries and benefits for faculty, salaries and benefits for staff, and funds for graduate programs.

General Effects

Just over a third of the departments reported that they were experiencing no problems as a result of the larger economic crises. These departments were primarily at private colleges and universities, but a few were at public institutions, particularly, it seemed, in southern states. These departments reported no reductions, and in many cases, indicated that they were experiencing net growth in their hiring of full-time faculty.

Roughly a quarter of the respondents reported that they were experiencing minor financial difficulties. They were often experiencing problems in just one area of their budget—typically a small reduction in general operating funds or a brief freeze in salaries. Very few of these chairs reported that they felt comfortable about their prospects for the near future, but most recognized that their problems were comparatively mild.

The remainder of the responses, almost 40 percent in all, indicated that they were experiencing substantial reductions in their department budgets, cuts that were having a tangible effect on the accomplishment of their work and mission. While the nature of the troubles varied widely, they almost invariably consisted of some reduction in supplies and services, and a real reduction in wages for faculty and staff.

Even though the questions asked about budget effects over the past year, most of the chairs experiencing painful reductions situated their department budget within a three-year time frame—looking back two years, and forward one. These chairs noted that freezes and cuts began back in 2008, and planning for additional cuts in the coming year were already under way.

One chair, asked to plan for a 20 percent reduction next year, reported that “Needless to say, for us and most any history department, that chunk goes well beyond operating budgets to the entire grad program and tenure-track positions. We are in process of such planning (not a morale boosting venture) and making clear the “costs” associated with any cuts.” These sorts of “budget reduction exercises” are adding to the sense of fear and uncertainty in many departments.

Marked Differences between Public and Private

Chairs from private institutions indicated they were being very cautious about their revenues and expenses, but the concerns they reported tended to be fairly remote from the core activities of the department—modest cuts in the catering budget for the department, for example (mentioned by a dozen chairs at private institutions), and in support to bring in outside speakers (mentioned by five chairs).

Almost all of them observed that they felt deeply fortunate. As one such chair observed, “Compared to many departments we’ve been very lucky. No furloughs, no salary cuts (we got a modest raise this year), no increased teaching loads, no significant budget cuts.”

In comparison, the responses from departments at public institutions seemed to reflect a different reality. The public institutions reported a wide variety of economic problems, but most attributed a significant portion of their difficulties to budget woes originating at the state level—reductions that had already had a deep impact, and presaged more severe problems in the near future. One chair noted that, “Continuing budget deficits at the state level threaten absolutely disastrous cuts—we’re anticipating at least one, and probably two midyear cuts.” Ten other department chairs at public institutions noted that their department had been shielded from deeper cuts by federal stimulus funds, and the imminent loss of those funds was likely to add to their problems in the coming year.

Most of the chairs’ concerns were related to the effects on individual faculty members, most visibly through a decline in their numbers, wages, and benefits. Fourteen chairs reported that the composition of their departments were being transformed by early retirement programs (for faculty and staff), which were implemented with widely varied goals and results. Some institutions were eliminating faculty lines, but others were simply trying to replace higher paid upper level faculty with lower paid junior faculty. Many others were experiencing some form of hiring freeze, reducing the size of their department faculty.

A majority of the chairs reported that their departments had experienced a reduction in faculty income. Even at some of the private institutions this was experienced in the form of multiyear pay freezes that effectively cut salaries by failing to keep them up with inflation. But 33 chairs reported that their faculties had also experienced further reductions through furloughs and tangible cuts or changes to their benefits packages.

The reductions in benefits most often occurred in the form of cuts in contributions for health and retirement plans. At some institutions, chairs estimated that the combined reduction of wages and benefits meant a tangible cut in take home pay of as much as 13 percent below levels of just 18 months earlier.

In addition to the cuts in personal income, a number of chairs noted that their faculties had suffered at least modest reductions in their travel budgets or allowances. In addition to reductions in funding levels, a few also noted that new procedures for oversight made it more difficult to access the funds available. As one chair observed, “faculty must go through a lengthy and somewhat confusing process” to get approval for travel outside of the immediate region.

A much larger number of chairs reported that they were also experiencing a substantial reduction in the funds available for contingent faculty (part-time faculty, adjuncts, visiting professors, and even teaching assistants). A smaller number of departments indicated that they were increasing the number of part-time and contingent hires to fill gaps in the curriculum or replace retiring faculty.

The changes in the employment of contingent faculty were noted in a range of comments that reveal some of the conflicting (and conflicted) attitudes about faculty serving in these positions. A number of chairs lamented that this reduction meant the loss of valued colleagues. As one chair observed, the cuts to this budget line “would have dramatic consequences for our adjunct instructors, some of whom teach at as many as three different institutions to cobble together a livable income.”

Some other chairs lamented the shift primarily for the effect this had on their full-time tenure track faculty—by requiring them to take on larger teaching loads, limit research sabbaticals, teach outside their core specialty, or teach introductory courses. As one chair observed, cutting the adjunct budget meant “we will try to accommodate the same number of students this spring as last while cutting a couple of sections. In other words, class size will go up.”

Thirty-eight department chairs (17 percent of the total) noted that the effects of changes in the use of contingent faculty were exacerbated by hiring freezes imposed by the college or university. Programs compelled to decrease the use of part-time and adjunct faculty felt increasingly stretched, while departments increasing the use of contingent faculty feared this could mark a permanent change in the composition of their departments. One chair worried that “we have shifted to a two-tier system where lower-paid, part-time faculty do nearly all of the general education service and the tenure track faculty teach upper division and graduate courses.”

Changes in personnel were not limited to front-line faculty. Two dozen departments (all at public institutions) reported that they had lost at least one part-time member of their support staff. They reported that this had a particularly detrimental effect on student advising and services, but also placed a heavier burden on department chairs, who described the added burden in administering faculty searches, and promotion and tenure cases, and the hiring of part-time faculty.

The effect on students came up as a recurring theme in the responses. One of the more common observations was about how a department was offering fewer upper-level courses, making it more difficult for its majors to complete their studies—and in some cases leading to higher attrition from the department. Another result was diminished time for faculty advising, resulting in declining student satisfaction.

The effect seemed to be even more profound at many graduate programs. There was a recurring lament about sharp cutbacks in support for their graduate students. (The rare exception was noted by two department chairs, who observed that reductions in full-time faculty were being addressed in part by increases in support for teaching assistants).

A number of chairs lamented the effect this was having on their graduate students—in their ability to support their studies, and even their ability to properly continue their academic work, as the time of their full-time faculty mentors and supervisors were reallocated to lower-level undergraduate courses. Three chairs observed that, as a result, there was substantial talk about eliminating the doctoral or graduate program in their department altogether.

Finally, the other notable effect cited by a significant number of chairs actually fell outside the department—on the history department’s portion of the library budget. Even though they were not specifically asked, a handful of the respondents noted the loss of material support for research, including diminished support for purchases of books and electronic databases of bibliographies, historical articles, and primary source materials.

Coping Strategies

Most of the departments experiencing substantial cuts treated the situation in fairly stoic terms—describing the problems as beyond their control and essentially just to be survived for the short term. But a few of the department chairs described fairly substantial changes in the work and culture of their department.

The most common adjustments seemed to be in the area of technology. Twenty of the department chairs noted that the budget cutbacks had accelerated a shift to online syllabi and materials. As one noted, “We scan more stuff—post it on Blackboard and tell the students to print it.” A few others noted that the reductions in faculty were promoting greater use of online courses, which allowed one institution to reduce full-time faculty while “maintaining the existing student-faculty ratio” through the use of adjunct instructors working off site.

A significant number also noted that they had been forced to remove phones from faculty offices to meet the budget. And others noted that they were either taking away faculty computers or choosing not upgrading them as they became obsolete. One chair reported, “Previously, we received faculty computer replacement funds on a three-year cycle. These have ended, and we are now using department funds to replace or repair faculty computers only when urgently necessary, and with faculty cost participation for more expensive alternatives.”

Even for the departments that were doing fairly well, this was clearly placing an added administrative burden. Very few of the department chairs failed to note that they were taking a much closer look at their ongoing costs, and in some cases, put in the position of needing to approve expenses as mundane as individual faculty members’ photocopying requests. (One chair observed that, “while photocopying isn’t prohibited, any class handout must be approved in advance by the department chair.”)

The only truly positive sign that many department chairs noted is that their enrollments and majors continued to grow, giving the history department a much stronger position relative to other departments in the humanities and social sciences.

Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.


1. The survey was not designed to elicit quantitative information. An e-mail to the chairs asked three open-ended questions: “(1) Is your department experiencing any reductions in funding, and if so, roughly how large are they (1 percent, 5 percent, etc.) and how many years have you been experiencing such cuts?”; “(2) Are budget reductions affecting your department’s execution of its work—either in the tangible ways (e.g., cuts in basic supplies, increases or reductions in the number of part-time faculty, and cuts in faculty salaries) or in less tangible ways (such as increases in course loads for full-time faculty)?”; and “(3) Finally, if you have experienced budget cuts, how have you adjusted to compensate for the diminished resources? If you have not experienced any reductions, is this something you are concerned about?” Given campus sensibilities, most chairs asked that their comments remain anonymous. In deference to the majority, all respondents remain unnamed.