Thursday, July 13, 2006

 

Reward or Fix?

We’re doing budget dances again.

With steadily dwindling resources, now we have to make choices between rewarding programs that have achieved growth, and fixing programs that have sprung leaks in recent years. It’s pretty much either/or; we don’t have the money to do both.

The problem is that either solution on its own is wrong.

If we take the ‘money sends messages’ approach and use what little we have to reward the areas that have grown, we will continue to bleed out in the other areas. If we shore up the holes, we will be punishing success. Neither is good.

(And no, ‘academic considerations’ don’t solve the issue. From an academic standpoint, which is more important: chemistry or biology? Me, neither.)

I suspect that, over the long term, the answer will be to abandon the idea of the “comprehensive” community college, in favor of a statewide system of community colleges with different strengths. (Boutique majors could be hosted at particular campuses, with online sections open to students across the entire state.) But that’s the kind of strategic decision best made deliberately, with forethought, broad discussion, and statewide buy-in. It’s not the kind of thing to decide on the fly, unilaterally, at one college. (“Okay, you guys in the next county over can take over nursing; we just want the chalk-and-talk majors. That work for you?” Uh-huh.) And we can’t base long-term strategic decisions on who happens to decide to retire next semester. (Even if we tried, retirements have a frustrating habit of happening in the wrong places, or happening all-of-a-sudden, or, in some departments, not happening at all for decades at a time.)

At some point, I think we’ll have to make a choice between doing a whole lot of things not-so-well or a few things well. I’d vote for the latter; others may disagree. But this isn’t the moment to make that call.

(Back in 2000, when The Wife and I were house-hunting, I briefly worked with one realtor who wanted me to carry around a cell phone at all times, because anything that came on the market in that town would go within an hour. I stopped working with him; there was no way that we would make that kind of decision in that kind of time.)

The frustrating likely outcome is that we’ll split the difference, meaning that some weak areas will continue to wither and some strong areas will get little more than a hearty handshake. Departments will dig in their heels, turf battles will escalate, accusations will fly, the state will continue to send contradictory signals, and the muddling-through will get just a little harder each year.

Grumble.

If it were easy, anybody could do it…

Comments:
A neighboring college (private) faces the problem of dwindling resources ($ and students). They have chosen to make across the board cuts in all programs and services. From the outside looking in, this seems counterproductive. Why not just cut out the dead and dying programs to save the good and great; thereby saving the college? I'm glad its their problem and not ours!
 
This is why you make the big bucks. (haha)

People don't understand that we struggle with these life and death, career-changing decisions all the time. How DO you value chemistry over biology, or dance over theater? And yet, money DOES send messages.

Good luck. Glad I'm not you this month. I'm just learning the ropes.
 
This sort of thing seems to have already happened in NYS.

Schenectady County Community College has an amazing culinary arts program, excellent music and drama programs, and an aviation science program.

Hudson Valley Community College (half an hour to the east of Schenectady) doesn't duplicate those flagship SCCC programs but instead is very well distinguished for its comprehensive academic honors program, its paramedic and EMT training programs, and its industrial engineering and automotive technology programs.

It's not clear how all this evolved, but I gather that the central planning bureaucrats and politicians had something to do with the implementation of complementary "centers of excellence."

Another interesting thing--both cc's are part of a consortium of several dozen area colleges (public & private, 4-year & 2-year) which allow their full-time students to freely cross-register for courses not available at their home institutions.

So SCCC doesn't have to offer advanced calculus and 2nd year physics classes to the tiny handful of students who are interested and prepared to take them--they can just send them over to Union College (five minutes away).

(And Union benefits as well--they are giving a "free sample" to prospective future transfers, plus the students' performance in those cross-registered classes provides useful information to their transfer admissions decisions.)
 
"...deliberately, with forethought, broad discussion, and statewide buy-in..."

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Good one, Dean Dad!

"Departments will dig in their heels, turf battles will escalate, accusations will fly, the state will continue to send contradictory signals, and the muddling-through will get just a little harder each year."

Now that sounds more like the higher ed that I'm familiar with.

USJogger
 
It seems that with the open enrollment policy of most community colleges, they are forced to use money for remedial programs over core degree or associate degree courses. I don't know if that is true for four year schools as well, but I imagine some of that is going on. What is bothering me is that most universities seem focused on becoming tech schools, with fine arts and even the liberal arts degree classes suffering from cuts and consolidation. I know my daughter has had to put off graduating another year because they have cut faculty yet again and now don't have enough sections of classes required for graduation. Add to that the strange scene that they only offer first year foreign language courses in the fall, which means if you don't get in their in the fall, you must wait an entire year to fulfill that requirement. Perhaps if they spent less on football....nah, that's not gonna happen.
 
Corporations with multiple lines of business face these kinds of issues all the time. The classic MBA-type strategy is to reinforce success while cutting losses -- "feed the stars, milk the cows and shoot the dogs." Public colleges, tho, seem to follow a different imperative: "feed the dogs, milk the stars and shoot the cows."
 
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