Behind the scenes: The language of retrenchment—A discourse analysis of budget cutting in higher education.

While the 2016 and 2017 academic year was personally traumatic because of the presidential election, it was also a time of upheaval for many institutions of higher education. As a result, many institutions underwent budget cuts, which is a perpetual condition at many institutions and in the field of higher education in general.

The impetus to do this critical discourse analysis study on budget cutting emails came from the use of a single phrase: “frost.” Used in an email to describe an institution’s approach to halting spending costs, the term “frost” stood out to me as curious. It contrasted with a term I was more used to seeing in communications about cost cutting measures across the business world: “freeze.” Freeze is most often used to describe decisions made to halt hiring, such as in a “hiring freeze.” However, the use of the word “frost” to describe a general directive to halt spending across an institution including a hold on hiring was immediately interesting. Why was frost being used instead of freeze entail? Did the use of frost entail more impermanence than a freeze (as in, the frost will melt soon, and spending can resume)? Or was frost an indicator of more serious freezes to come, as the first frost of a season indicates that the worst, meaning the true cold, is yet to come. Was the use of frost an institutional way to say, “Winter is coming?”

This use of the word frost came from an institutional email communicating information about budget cuts at a urban, public higher education institution. As I explored that email further, I found more discursive and linguistics areas of interest. Overall, the email used language in a way that made it feel like real information was being communicated when the actual nature of the information presented was actually masked or hidden, such as in the use of “frost” to hide what exactly was being cut, who these cuts would affect, and for how long the hold would last. Instead, from that first email, it was clear that the emails were designed to generate support from those reading the emails without actually communicating much about what institutional leadership was asking them to “buy” into. And, thus, a discourse analysis project was born.


Like my prior critical discourse analysis projects, I followed the same steps in this CDA. After identifying the corpus, which consisted of emails from the president to faculty, staff, and stakeholders (publicly available as public communications) at two public institutions (one a large, urban, public institution; the other a small, public, regional institution), I returned to the literature to find out what prior linguistic analyses had been done on retrenchment communications to faculty, staff, and the public. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), not much existed in the literature about the communications or language used in these processes; much more had been written about the type of cutting done in times of financial stress or the decision-making processes used to make retrenchment decisions. What existed was limited to two studies, one by Slaughter (1993), and a CDA by Ayers (2014). Those studies found that language use was designed to communicate the nature of the crisis and generate support from stakeholders into the plan created to address that budget crisis.

Since limited research existed on the linguistic tools used to communicate these messages, I explored my favorite linguistic analysis of higher education language-in-use, Biber’s (2006) University language: A corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. I checked this book out so many times via ILL, that I finally realized I just needed to buy it. Through review of the text and my own reading of the emails, I identified pronoun use, stance, and nominalization as key linguistic tools through which I could explore how the emails communicated budget cutting behaviors. First, pronoun use was important to analyze because pronouns are often used to create an “us” versus “them” positioning to generate support for an idea or message. Second, pronouns can be used to mask who is actually making decisions (such as in the use of “we” when describing decisions made by one or a small group instead of the whole. Second, stance was important to explore because it provided insight into how the crisis and budget cuts were being communicated (e.g., were they being presented as urgent? Incontrovertible fact?). Finally, I explored nominalization to understand how verbs and adjectives were being turned into nouns which, in the process, obscured their meaning (This is what was happening with the use of “frost.” By calling a halt to spending a frost, all information about what was included in the frost was hidden from the reader.) These three tools would provide the linguistic foundation for the thematic “discourse” analysis that was the last stage of the data analysis process. In this study, we were exploring how discourses persisted across the corpus and how these discourses reinforced both the conclusions drawn in the linguistic analysis and how they perpetuated systems of power in higher education. As with other “Behind the Scenes” posts, we discuss the results in the full manuscript, which you can find here.

Path to Publication

Initially, we (my coauthors and I) were unsure about where this manuscript belonged. Among the three of us, I was the methodology “expert” and conducted the analysis and did most of the writing, while my co-authors were experts in financial decision-making in higher education. I, as quickly as I could, caught up on what I didn’t know about retrenchment decision-making in higher education, but the limited amount of research I could find meant that I also did not have a lot of foundational literature to build on and journals to reference that had published similar work before. As a result, we initially submitted to a linguistic journal that quickly rejected it for reasons I do not quite remember. It seemed clear, however, from the feedback, that we needed to find a higher education specific journal for this work. I set off on a google journey to find a journal where it might fit. Because of my limited knowledge of higher education organization and administration, and I had written the majority of the manuscript including implications, I was hesitant to submit to an org and admin-focused journal. Instead, we settled on the Journal for Post-secondary and Tertiary Research (JSPTE) out of the University of Idaho. JSPTE’s focus on higher education more broadly and in an international setting made it an excellent home for this work. Their review process is delightfully transparent, and we received an R&R in the normal timeframe with clear directions on how to improve and refine our manuscript. After turning around those edits, the manuscript was accepted and, then, published. It was a smooth, well-organized, and clear process.

Final Thoughts

As this post and all of my posts in my CDA projects have made clear, I have a singular approach to critical discourse analysis, one that stands apart from other discourse analysis projects I have read recently in the higher education literature. Many of those projects focus on “discourses” as evidence of Discourses of power, or they have focused on discourses as analysis of a reciprocal communication. In contrast, while I explore what I call “big D” discourses in the final stage of a CDA project, my analysis always begins by understanding the language used to communicate those discourses. For me, beginning with linguistic decisions often provides insight into the Discourses I will identify later and provides evidence of how those Discourses are being communicated. This is often easier to do in the text-based documents I analyze. However, I do not suggest that there is more or less validity in the way I conduct CDA project, just that there is a reason I like to begin and root my conclusions in linguistic choices.

Second, if you are reading this on the day it is published (November 13, 2019) or the following day (November 14) and are attending the ASHE conference in Portland, OR. You can join us for a discussion of the paper on November 14, 2019 at 2:15 PM in Hilton Portland Downtown, 3rd floor, Directors room. In that presentation, we will focus the bulk of our time talking about the results.


Ayers, D. F. (2014). When managerialism meets professional autonomy: The university ‘budget update’ as a genre of governance. Culture and Organization, 20(2), 98-120.

Biber, D. (2006). University language: A corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Slaughter, S. (1993). Retrenchment in the 1980s: The politics of prestige and gender. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(3), 250-282.

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