Monday, March 23, 2009
Dodging Bullets and Crying Wolf
Between extraordinarily good work by our budget people, a few lucky breaks, and the likely support from the stimulus package, it looks like we might actually get through this year without any layoffs.
Then, there's the issue of expectations and credibility.
Taking transparency seriously, we've done quite a bit of communication with the campus at large. Nobody out there could credibly claim to be surprised if layoffs ensued. We've eliminated some vacant positions and postponed filling others, even going so far as to reorganize certain areas to take advantage of some vacant administrative positions. (Yes, contrary to stereotype, we're streamlining administration rather than cutting faculty. Still some people object. Ya gotta wonder...)
All of those savings are part of what may make layoffs unnecessary. (I say 'may,' because there are still plenty of unknowns.)
My concern now is that it will be easy for people to interpret 'scarily near miss' as alarmism, and to discount future expressions of concern as crying wolf. If all these months of communication wound up being largely irrelevant on the ground, then why engage in more? Annoyingly enough, our success in dodging the bullet could actually lead to future credibility crises. If “this too shall pass” gets confirmed in practice, then it will be that much harder to get future warnings taken seriously.
I don't mean for this to sound whiny; again, it's a better problem that what I had been expecting to face at this point. I'd rather inadvertently confirm complacency than throw people out of work.
The communication hasn't just been “abandon hope, ye who work here.” It's been pretty specific about numbers, including specifying which ones are relatively predictable and which are effectively unknowable in advance. The idea has been to treat everybody like adults, on the theory that most will reciprocate. (There's always that ten percent or so who sing the old Groucho Marx song “Whatever it is, I'm against it,” but that's to be expected.) It hasn't been anything like the old Bush-era terror color code, in which shifts were based on hunches or poll results. We've shared such facts as we've had, as we've had them, and been honest about the limits of what we've known.
Now it looks like all may be relatively well, at least in the very short term. Which is great, but still. I can't help but wonder how many people will think that the entire thing was some sort of weird charade.
The stimulus funding is for two years. It would be easy to revert to a relieved business-as-usual, and just hope that the economy is up and running again two years from now. I hope we don't do that, though. In my best scenario, we take this two-year window as a chance to examine what we're doing more thoroughly, to emerge stronger overall when the crisis passes. This year's crisis has been harrowing, but it has basically been an acceleration of a much longer-term underlying trend of shifting the cost of public higher education from taxpayers generally to students (and, in a sense, adjuncts) specifically. When the crisis subsides, the pace should become less scary, but the underlying trend will still be there.
It would be a normal, natural, human reaction for people to wipe their brows, say 'whew!,' and try to forget the whole, scary thing. And maybe for a week or two, that's fine. But I hope that we don't just revert to habits that – it's easy to forget now – have been part of a longer decline.
Practical suggestion: someone stash all the documentation of this crisis somewhere safe. You almost certainly don't have a special collections department in your library, but find somewhere. Then, when someone inevitably asks about alarmism, offer them the entire set of documents and suggest that they dig for falsification, pessimism, inappropriate conclusions, etc. "If we screwed up last time, show us how. We need to know now, if not yesterday, so we can improve. It'll be there."
From what I hear and read, it's ugly at a lot of places. And those institutions that miss most of the mess need to count themselves as fortunate.
You were dealing with a reasonably estimated range for possible values in the second category in the face of the third one. To a certain extent you still are. Two years ago you didn't even know you should worry about "toxic assets". Today, you still don't know if there are other, similar, things to worry about.
So why not communicate this to the faculty and staff? Clearly, using all of your skills from grad school and your teaching career? As someone noted in the comments, there are worse things going on at places that did not plan for a Worst Case that is now turning out to be a Best Case scenario! If restructuring saved even one faculty or staff job that would have been lost even *with* the stimulus package, you need to explain this. If you can't use numbers, find someone who can.