The Language of Retrenchment: A Discourse Analysis of Budget Cutting in Higher Education

Laura J Parson, Jacob P Gross, Alexander Williams
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 4  •  2019  •  pp. 033-048

Using discourse analysis, this study analyzed language used at universities undergoing budget cuts.

In times of economic hardship and declining public support, institutions can generate more revenue or reduce expenditures, referred to as retrenchment, to meet their resource needs. Yet, scholarship on organizational approaches to retrenchment is scarce.

Using critical discourse analysis, this study analyzed public communication from university leadership to employees about budget cuts. To understand how institutionalized structures were negotiated, reinforced, and constructed through language we looked for linguistic patterns in the use of pronouns, affective and epistemic stance, and nominalization in institutional emails.

As educational scholarship on institutional budget cutting behaviors remains almost nonexistent, this study extended understanding of budget cutting behaviors by exploring how university presidents frame budget cuts as a serious problem and persuade stakeholders that their solutions will resolve the budget crisis while minimizing personal harm.

Analysis of corpus data suggested that the language used in SRI and URU’s budget emails was tailored to generate support for university leadership’s authority and plans to resolve the crisis.

Through the lens of poststructuralist thought, findings suggest there is room for electronic communication about budget crises and resolution to be clearer about the organization of power and the location of financial decision-making.

The existing body of knowledge on the language used in retrenchment decision-making is small and triangulation with the literature confirmed findings on a larger scale, more research is needed.

If institutions are seeking transparency, they should use language that clearly communicates the nature of the problem, defines which individuals/groups are creating the plan to return to fiscal stability, and, when decisions are made, outlines the specific details of the plans that include who it will impact and how.

While much of the research has focused on the impact of retrenchment on institutional and student outcomes, these findings suggest that future research should also explore the impact of retrenchment decision-making on faculty and staff outcomes like morale, sense of belonging, and retention and recruitment.

retrenchment, budget cutting behaviors, discourse analysis
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