Thursday, October 09, 2008

 

Sustainability

'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.

Comments:
About CCs as a "subsidized nonprofit with a mission of providing access for the poor and working class":

My experience is that non-profits have a lot more flexibility than CCs. Not only is it easier for non-profits to build programs through in-kind contributions and volunteers, non-profits also have the freedom to structure themselves in any way they and the 501(c) code please. And, few non-profits get caught in the type of identity crises that 21st century CCs are facing.
 
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

Okay, but here's my question: why the hell aren't we as a society prepared to say these things? What the hell is wrong with our priorities? Why are we still locking people up for harmless drug "offenses" while our university budgets are being drastically slashed all over the country? Why are we still letting the obscenely rich slip through loopholes in the tax code while our infrastructure collapses?

Maybe this nation deserves another Great Depression, to force us to realign our priorities for a generation or more.
 
"Maybe this nation deserves another Great Depression, to force us to realign our priorities for a generation or more."

I hope this is a joke, or irony, or something.

Crises may be good at forcing people to face reality, but they're usually not all that great at reaching good long-run solutions--unless someone already has, at hand, good long-term solutions to the underlying, systematic problems.

Crises generally lead to band aids, not to systematic change. (Once in a while, yes, you get real, systematic, and progressive change. The new Deal was such a period, but there were a lot of good solution--securities regulation, deposit insurance, social secutiry, unemployment insurance, workers compensation [these latter two had been tried at the state level, and worked] at hand, to implement nationally.)

So here's the question. What are the readily-available, systematic change proposals in the instance that DD confronts? That situation has svereal parts, which seem to me to include:

1) Persistently marginal-to-totally-inadequate funding.

2) An institutional structure that does not change easily, or adapt well to change.

3) A history of failing to consider sweeping institutional reorganization.

4) Entrenched programs (academic and non-academic) and people (academic, and, to a lesser extent, nonj-academic).

Your proposals for systematic change, readily at hand to be implemented?
 
Doc cuts right to the quick, here, and meteechart also has an important piece of the puzzle.

My intuition (and I am in no position to set or suggest policy here) is that the problem will be solved by an end-run around traditional academia entirely. In other words, the poor and working class will have access to non-traditional education, probably online except for limited-duration "practicum" sessions. I also predict that these methods, probably in a flashier package, will also make significant inroads into non-CC's.

Basically, if the cost differential between traditional teaching and online certification becomes too high, most people will not pay the premium. Have we reached that point? Possibly.
 
We'd both have to lift our pseudonyms to compare what you think is astonishingly severe to what we are dealing with, not to mention the creative way our management is dealing with the problem. Hint: The solution did start with a modestly clean sheet, showed incredible foresight (i.e. actually noticed the economy was getting worse), and did involve the faculty as soon as practicable (some things happen in the summer), but has been totally tone deaf to the effect of treating faculty like they care less about the institution than the drive-by dean that used us as an 18-month springboard to the job he really wanted ... and to the effect of giving raises to the boss while the workers get nothing.

Sorry about your situation, but I have seen N recessions and their effect on academia, so I am hardly surprised to see another do the same thing. Didn't anyone at your college notice the economy was in trouble? Had none of them been through a recession before? The answer to the last question might be "yes" if management has a short cycle time.

As for the Great Depression, I don't think my parents would characterize the changes that took place as anything less than systemic change. But it did take 4 years of errors by Coolidge, 4 years of errors by Hoover, and 4 years of errors by Roosevelt before workable solutions were developed.
 
CC I hope your not suggesting we start a world war to lift us out of recession?

Quite a few of my international friends still have the (sincerely held) perspective that Roosevelt turned a regional conflict into a global war, just so the US could collapse the world economy in order to climb over the backs of the more progressive economies to rescue capitalism . . .

More to the point: Dean Dad, perhaps your particular institution is not destined to succeed? I mean, taking a step back and looking at this as an outsider, if your firm is unwilling or unable to respond positively to the forces in your environment, an "exit strategy" that minimizes unfairness would be in order?

It is a very gloomy picture you are painting.
 
Well, *everyone* I knew in high school that went to college either did it to
1. Not be a loser and party with their friends.
2. Get a better job/make more money.
3. Play a sport. (knew a wrestler that went into rough carpentry after he graduated)

So how does college look when it's a trade school for professionals and clerks? Poetry/classical studies/whatever is only by the independently wealthy?
 
Fantastic comment!

What *would* higher education look like if the purpose of higher education was to prepare citizens to contribute substantively to the quality of life of other citizens?

Yeah, probably a lot more economics & business . . . and a lot less "Deconstructionism in Modern Ontological Patriarchal Constructs" fer sure . . .

Therefore, a lot more "Trade Schools" (yes) and a lot fewer "Liberal Arts Schools."

How would impact the Community Colleges?

I am surprised that Dean Dad doesn't recognize the seeds of his own demise in his personal socioeconomic philosophy . . .

And

Oh By The Way shouldn't our *high schools* be performing this "trade School" function in the first darned place?!?
 
I was thinking of nurses, accountants, engineers and lawyers when I wrote trade school for professionals.

The clerks thing should be covered by high school. But it isn't
 
This schools are great as like your article. I feel to go back to my college days.

education,teachers, principals, college, coaching
 
At my institution we've been informed that we are to take a permanent budget cut from the state as of January 1st. We're a small unit, so the actual dollar amount is relatively small, although the percentage of our budget is significant.

This is the beginning of the slash. We've had terrific leadership at the unit level, but we're scrambling. This is the financial crisis washing over our state U. At this point, the state U's in the region can't get credit for their building projects. These loans are the lowest of risk for banks, but that's how "Frozen" the credit markets are.

It's going to be a few years of fiscal UGLY.

For the poor and working class kids, they're going to be pushed out. We're having a crush of in-state middle class students who were attending out of state schools, since that tuition is no longer affordable for their parents. So, we'll probably have a major spike in total enrollments for the near future.

But in other eras of financial "crunch," the poor and working class kids are going to be pushed out of higher education.
 
And I'd certainly say that there is sustainability in online trade schools.
 
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