Monday, December 12, 2005

 

Tulane

From what I’ve read about the situation at Tulane, I have to applaud. According to the piece in IHE, dealing with the aftermath of Katrina has cost more than anticipated, so the administration has chosen to declare fiscal exigency and restructure, eliminating entire programs.

That’s the right way to do it.

Too much of academia is wedded to incrementalism. When a fiscal crunch hits, it’s far too common to see the same few cost-cutting moves, over and over again: freeze travel, freeze hiring, freeze library purchases, but leave every program intact. It’s the equivalent of the teenager watering down the whiskey in the liquor cabinet so Dad won’t find out. As long as all the bottles are still there, and you don’t look too close, all seems well.

Slight watering-down is a reasonable response to a mild, passing crunch, such as might happen when there’s a spike in heating costs or an overrun on a construction project. It’s a terrible response to a long-term and/or severe problem, such as deliberate public disinvestment in higher education or runaway health insurance costs.

The incremental approach is politically easy to sell on campus, since the people hurt by it (i.e. prospective future hires) aren’t around at the time to protest. (They exist – a quick glance at the academic job market of the last two decades is proof of that – but they aren’t organized at the right pressure points to make a difference, unlike incumbent faculty.) But it leaves the causes of the crunch intact, effectively guaranteeing that it will happen again.

Repeated incremental cuts (repeated or sustained hiring freezes, say) wind up drastically reducing the quality of each program, since any program has a certain minimum staffing level beneath which it cannot go and still exist. Can a given English department go from, say, 30 faculty to 28 and still function? Yes. Can a Ceramics program go from 1 to zero and still function? No. So ‘freezes’ become ‘flexible freezes’ (slush?) because to do otherwise would be to chop programs.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, I’ve never seen cuts restored. New hires can only be justified as replacements, and not every departure gets replaced.

Incrementalism saves some difficult conversations, buys time until some well-situated people retire, and makes no headlines. It’s easier. Reducing staff ‘by attrition’ means not having to fire anybody, not having to take on the unions, and not making waves; it also means not solving the problem. (And, for the record, it means systematically screwing the next generation. There's something wrong when deliberately eating your young is the 'moderate' course of action.)

The “comprehensive” model of colleges and universities – all things to all people – simply isn’t sustainable in this political and economic climate. Rather than doing everything just a little bit worse every year, I’d prefer to see colleges make the tough choices while they still can. Pick a niche, and go with it. Pony up the resources to do that niche well, and make the cuts elsewhere, even to the point of entire programs and the tenured faculty who teach in them.

Behind closed doors, every administrative colleague I’ve ever had (myself included) will admit that some programs at a given school are stronger than others. Some of those strengths are public knowledge, but most aren’t; you can read all the websites and catalogs you want without ever seeing a college say “we teach x, but not very well.” In flush times, the thing to do may be to try to beef up the weaker programs. But when Katrina hits, it’s time to retire the euphemisms and face reality. Different schools will pick different niches, and rightly so: an honors college here, an art school there, an engineering school over there. That would be more sustainable, more honest, and (I think) ultimately more socially beneficial than continuing to maintain the fiction of comprehensiveness, each year a little less convincingly.

Comments:
I'm glad to see your take on this. As a former Tulane student, I've kept a close eye on their recovery process, and have been extremely impressed, both by the steps they've taken since the hurricane, and by the measures that were in place beforehand (particularly in the form of huge amounts of insurance) that let them deal quickly and effectively with the cleanup process. Of course that kind of preparation requires levels of funding that only places like Tulane can muster, but it looks as though their planning was wise all around.
 
The situation at Tulane is a sad one but I agree that the measures taken appear to be necessary ones. I'm curious, if by your comments, you think that the elimination of certain Engineering programs, would indicate that those programs at Tulane were 'weak'. I personally, would find it difficult to recommend Tulane to any prospective student for the foreseeable future due to the situation in the city itself.
 
Interesting reflections once again, dean dad.

Anonymous, I don't know if the engineering programs that were eliminated were "weak," but I bet they were a lot more expensive to maintain than the "chalk-and-talk" majors, because of the need for labs, equipment, constant new technology, etc.

On the other hand, it's especially ironic (and tragic) that Tulane eliminated their civil and environmental engineering program.

If ever a city needed a university with an excellent civil & environmental engineering program, it's New Orleans.

With all the huge government spending going into rebuilding and recovery and relief efforts, I would think that a few strategic grants for Tulane faculty and students to do research and hands-on service-learning in New Orleans would be an excellent investment of public funds!

A lot of money is getting spent on levees, environmental recovery, infrastructure rebuilding. Why not have some on-the-spot academic expertise year-round rather than paying travel expenses for high-priced academic consultants to come in and offer their expertise?

Why aren't FEMA, EPA, and Army Corps of Engineers falling all over themselves to offer grant money to support Tulane's civil and environmental engineering program?

Strikes me as penny-wise and pound-foolish on the government's part.

New Orleans is an unparalleled opportunity for hands-on teaching and research in civil & environmental engineering. What a loss to New Orleans and to the wider world that might hope to learn important lessons from New Orleans' experiences.
 
I have to say I was unhappy about Tulane deciding to eliminate it's civil engineering program. Civil has been under attack across the country for the past several years because it doesn't generate as much money for universities as biomedical or other higher profile programs. I think it's unfortunate in Tulane's case because programs like Civil largely train students in the hopes they will work in their state. Programs like biomed generate alot of money, but their goal is usually national or international prominence in research with few students and lots of research faculty. It strikes me that New Orleans may need more civil engineers in training right now than anything else.
 
I don't like their decision to get rid of graduate studies and have all graduate student admin be done through their departments. This removes a valuable layer of accountability, and it is students who will be at risk of being harmed without recourse.
 
Not exactly a germane point, but...I'm on a search committee in English this year, and two of our applicants were associate professors from New Orleans whose jobs have been eliminated. So sad in both cases: clearly people who had committed to institutions, made a place for themselves, gotten tenure, and were ready to live there for the forseeable future, and now back on the market, scrambling for assistant jobs. Clearly these are people with more resources than many of the displaced from New Orleans, but still...so sad.
 
Sorry, but the engineering cuts seem tremendously short-sighted.

If over $60M in donations has come in directly because of your EECS program, then why do you whack it?

180 Med School faculty and all engineering programs are "non essential" with the exception of BME and ChemE, yet every liberal arts program, every prof in the B-school, every ADMINISTRATOR is deemed essential.

These were wise choices? Good luck getting anybody to donate to that alumni fund...
 
My endorsement of Tulane's approach was an endorsement of the approach of selecting areas to cut, rather than resorting to the tired 'across-the-board' method. Being selective allows you to retain a core of excellence, however chosen. I don't know enough about the innards of Tulane to know whether the specific choices they made were wise or not; that's an internal issue. What I wanted to applaud, publicly, was the willingness to make the tough choices.
 
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