Thursday, June 26, 2008


Systems and Silos

This article had me laughing, smiling wistfully, and pulling what little hair I still have. It's frustratingly true.

The article basically asks why colleges and universities are so consistently caught flat-footed every time there's a state budget crunch. Rather than the predictable right-wing bloviating -- “public anythings can't do anything right, except the military, which is perfect in every way, so shut the hell up you hippie peaceniks...” -- it actually addresses reality. In this case, it's the difference between systems and silos.

If we had a higher education system, we'd build into it features like transferability of credits, inter-institutional divisions of labor -- “this campus will specialize in life sciences, and that one will specialize in social sciences” -- and consistent standards between, say, high school graduation and public college entrance. Hell, we might even tie graduate admissions numbers to projected employment needs in various fields.

But we don't have a system. As in so many things, we have thousands of independent silos, each with its own internal politics. And we try to stitch them together after the fact, paying only intermittent attention to their own individual imperatives. Predictably enough, ignoring their internal imperatives leads to failure over and over again.

Why don't public colleges and universities salt away large sums of cash during good times to tide them over during bad times? Because the internal politics won't allow large sums to sit undisturbed. Because the external politics are such that when times get bad, legislators see those reserves as excuses to cut funding. (Apparently now in Massachusetts, the state is even applying this to endowments at private universities!)

Why don't public colleges and universities at least develop contingency plans for 'what to cut first' when times get tough? Because the contingency plans would generate terrible ill-will and politicking on campus during the rare good times when people could be otherwise engaged. (Imagine the faculty senate meeting: “Clearly, Nuclear Basketweaving is our weakest program, so if the state cuts are bad, we'll get rid of that.” “WHAT????”) Because legislators will see contingency plans as licenses to cut. Because naming departments as the lowest priorities at a campus rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I've read plenty of college promotional materials. I've never – never – seen a college admit to the public at large that a given department or program isn't very good. That's not because every program at every college is perfect, heaven knows; internally, I've heard plenty of discussion of the weak links at various places. But it's simply not in the college's interest to advertise that. A publicly debated contingency plan would effectively tell the public which of any given college's gazillion priorities are the lowest. Presumably, the public would respond accordingly.

So we have colleges pretending that all is well, because to do otherwise would make things worse. And we have legislators largely disregarding what they hear, partly out of a legitimate skepticism and partly out of baser, but very real, political motivations of their own. We make idiotic short-term decisions during crunch times because we can't count on internal unity or external comprehension. For example, I don't recall the public debate about going all-adjunct, all-the-time. It was the cumulative result of a great many local decisionmakers taking the path of least resistance. (It's politically easier to 'not hire' than to fire.) Although it's tempting to ascribe conspiratorial agency to the trend, it was primarily a predictable consequence of failing to look at higher ed as a system.

Fixing it is the hard part.

That's a great idea.

We do, in fact, decide on priorities for elimination anyway - and inevitably will need to do so repeatedly.

So, would you recommend it at a departmental or division level?

Does the department/division (however you're structured there) you head have a contingency plan for budget cuts?
My state (and probably others) do everything they can to be counter-productive fiscally.

We can't save money because we "lose next year what we don't spend this year." Therefore, there is no incentive to save. Added to the fact that we adopted a statewide eprocurement system that ensures ZERO competition for our bids. Vendors don't cut prices to the individual agencies, but we assume they give kickbacks to the state to be on the system! OMG!!!
Nit Pick:

You may not have a system, but California and New York and Florida do. Each of these have tried in the past to do some of the things you mention (e.g. SUNY wanted to assign specialties to various campuses). Even in those systems, politics and budgets remain a problem that can border on a soap-opera summary in IHE. Having a system does not solve the problem. If anything, it looks like it makes planning harder than in a more market-based approach of competing silos - except for the transfer credit problem.


How does your college do its short- and long-range budgeting? How did PU do it? Different? Is there explicit discussion of the ratio of f-t to adjunct sections?

Questions for a future blog:

1) Do any states control enrollment through per-student funding caps?

2) Can you make changing majors illegal so students can't come in one major door and then change to another?

3) Do you really think State Planning of enrollments in graduate school is a good idea, let alone feasible? If so, how do you project the employment demand in both public and private sectors for 5 to 8 years into the future?
We used to allow deans on campus to have private accounts with cash they got from non-general funds (profit from workshops, donations from alums). Our dean created a reserve with this money and because of the reserve, the last crunch was not as bad. Our last dean also was good about not spending money when he anticipated that things would be tightening but I'm not sure how he was able to care that over from year to year.

Now of course the president ordered all of those accounts closed.
"Why don't public colleges and universities salt away large sums of cash during good times to tide them over during bad times?"

California community colleges do. At the beginning of the last fiscal year (07), the seventy-some California CC districts had accumulated a total of $1B--yep, thats billion with a B--in cash reserves.

The problem, however, is persuading Boards of Trustees to spend it.

Indiana University (and, I think, Purdue as well) has, in fact, begun to try to limit (cap) undergrad enrollments on the "flagship" campuses (Bloomington and West Lafayette). This is not popular, either with the legislature or with the general population, because no one thinks much of (or cares much about) the smaller campuses.

The caps are designed to try to limit pressure for expansion of facilities on those campuses when the regional campuses have underutilized facilities.

At IU, our immediate past president pushed for something he called "mission differentiation" for the campuses, which made (I thought) immense sense. But he also (I thought) did it wrong. He emphasized differentiating one IU campus from the others, whereas I thought it was more relevant to differentiate one IU campus from its competitors. This was particularly relevant for the regional campuses, because we are not really competing with each other for students (we have very little student housing, except in Bloomington).

So there are some efforts at some part of this, but how effective it has been, or will be, is anyone's guess.
It's not like any other state agency in my state is looking at another round of budget cuts with any "savings" or great plan. We've had a lot of lean years and no good ones for a long time now. Yep, we've cut a couple programs (a major/minor, for one).
Good discussion of the politics involved in state money. The universities in my state specialize to some extent, but we still have all of the other issues you mentioned. I would love to see consistent standards between high school graduation and college admission, as my building is full of students taking pre-algebra (i.e. 6th grade math), but the politicians wouldn't stand for the dramatic drop in high school graduation rates that would entail.
I've finally put my blog where my mouth is: proposing a meme of sorts to summarize the budget structure of the college or university a poster calls home and posting my own example. You are invited to link to an article from your own blog or just post your pseudonymized numbers in the comments section of either article.

I'd wager that folks at a university will be stunned at the financial structure of our CC.

Also, to James:
You might be interested in the summary of a discussion about finding a better way to talk about the concept of prerequisite knowledge to those kids finally learning 6th grade math in your building.
(Apparently now in Massachusetts, the state is even applying this to endowments at private universities!)

Nothing like an aside that conveniently ignores that there's only one Harvard :-)

This does remind me of the large swings in available money over 3-5 years in my state though. Nothing like having the entire government told to cut spending by several percent halfway through the budget year.
I'm not sure to what extent it's a system, but medical schools in the U.S. do cooperate to the extent that they all participate in the graduating student match program, ensuring that all doctors graduating are guaranteed a job. Somewhere. They don't admit more students than they can find jobs for. I'm not sure who regulates it -- the AMA, I'd guess.

One can certainly see the advantages to applying that system to academic graduate programs.
Many other developed countries *do* have a "system"* such as you sugest.

That's why most of their students come to the USA for higher ed.

*We *do* have a "system." Just like we have a health care system and a grocery delivery system. What you *meant* to say is "we don't have a state controlled, centrally managed system" (SCCM). Truth in Advertising: everyone claiming we don't have a "system" for [fill in the blank] should be REQUIRED to specify SCCM if that's what they actually mean. Funny how subtle antecedent changes in language can make very significant changes in reality seem not so significant after a while . . . (since when did "things I want" become defined as "rights?")
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