Thursday, October 09, 2008


'Sustainability' usually refers to the environment, but I think it makes sense in referring to organizations, too. Some structures, cultures, and behaviors are more sustainable than others over time.

My college is in the midst of some external financial shocks of astonishing severity. (It's a measure of how bad things are nationally that I can say that and not worry about compromising pseudonymity.) There's simply no way to take cuts of this magnitude and not feel them. This is especially true with the academic year already well under way, since we've already committed to the Fall classes and signed most of the staff to annual (July-to-June) contracts. Worse, it's fairly clear that we aren't yet close to hitting the bottom of the current cycle, so whatever cuts we make right now are not likely to be the last.

(This is the real downside to the public sector. When tax revenues crash, we can't help but feel it. And since nobody is about to say “jeez, how many more prisons do we actually need?,” or “let's let the baseball team pay for its own damn stadium,” or “you know, progressive taxation wasn't such a bad idea after all,” higher ed takes a disproportionate slam.)

As a subsidized nonprofit with a mission of providing access for the poor and working class, the tuition and fees we charge don't cover all of our costs. That's not a mistake; that's by design. Although we charge tuition, our underlying model is closer to public libraries or the K-12 system than to a for-profit business. That's because, like public libraries and the K-12 system, there's an underlying concept that community colleges are public goods.

I like that aspect of the community college mission. I can sleep well at night knowing that my job, when push comes to shove, is about helping people with few options acquire the skills and credentials to make better lives for themselves. I'm good with that.

But the boom-bust cycle of public funding does a number on an institution whose work, by design, takes years.

Having spent most of the week reeling from the shock of some of the numbers I've seen, I'm beginning to think there's actually an upside to the collapse. When funding is almost-enough, it's possible to balance the books by trimming here and adjuncting there, without really disturbing the underlying model. Then when the bad times come, you juggle layoffs and furloughs and maybe even a program closure or two, until the money comes back and order can be restored.

No. No more. Enough.

There's a saying that nothing focuses the mind like a gun to the head. When 'shortfall' becomes 'free fall,' the cost of denial becomes prohibitive. In breathtakingly short order, we've blown right past the point at which the usual playbook will do.

If we're going to survive the next few years with the kind of financial hits we're taking now, we're going to have to start working with some blank sheets of paper. And we're going to have to do it in inclusive ways, or the infighting will prevent anybody's idea from succeeding.

Perversely enough, the severity of what we're facing now may actually do some long-term good. The usual half-measures, which avoid just enough conflict, just won't cut it. I'm thinking it's time to get clear on the distinction between means and ends, and to treat means with no more reverence than you'd treat any other tool. Deference to the fiefdoms of strong personalities is just too expensive to sustain.

The tricky part will be in maintaining enough trust to get productive changes on the table and on the ground without falling victim to internal politics. 'Faculty vs. administration' becomes moot when a college closes. In the original meaning of the word, it's time to get radical.

Incrementalism just isn't sustainable anymore.