Wednesday, October 28, 2009

 

Power 101

Several alert readers sent me this story about Southwestern College, a cc near San Diego. According to the IHE account, the college has banned several faculty, including the past and current presidents of the union, from campus. Their indirect support of a student protest appears to be the reason. (The President is apparently on an extended vacation, which doesn't help.)

I won't go off on the evil of banning critics from campus, since I take that as given. And I won't do the usual administrators-are-the-source-of-all-evil rant, either, because it's neither true nor helpful.

Instead, I'll offer a critique as a college administrator. Simply put, Southwestern's administration is looking amateurish. This is not how it's done.

Anyone who has held an authority position during a budget downturn has faced criticism. Some is probably fair, some is clearly not, and much is highly emotional. People who don't deal with budgets for a living often don't understand the constraints within them, erroneously thinking that money from column A can simply be shifted to column B at will. Worse, rather than taking the time to learn the rules, they immediately leap to the moral high ground and start passing judgments, loudly and publicly, based on misinformation. Being on the receiving end of that can be wearing, and you'd have to be pretty impressive -- or pretty out-of-touch -- for it not to affect you. Some of your less-balanced critics will even make it personal.

This is where leaders need to step up.

Depending on your estimate of the situation, and the direction you want to go, you have several options.

You could enlist the aid of the union (and/or the students) in making a common pitch for more resources. Admittedly, California may not be in a position to respond, but that approach has been known to work in other settings.

Or, you could call the union's bluff on the moral high ground, invite its leaders to the table, explain the very real constraints, and ask them what they would do. Admittedly, some of them will get squirrelly at this point, but the smarter ones will see a chance to actually achieve something and jump on it.

Or, you could divide-and-conquer, finding some sort of fault line within the union itself and hitting it with surgical precision. This takes skill and some creativity, but it can be devastatingly effective.

Or, you could take the crisis as an opportunity for a thorough reinvention of the college as a whole. This combines 'divide and conquer' with 'fiscal realism' and 'good PR.' Done well, this can lead to the college coming out stronger -- at least in relative terms -- than before.

Or, you could take the "cut off the head" approach, purge your senior staff, and refill your top admin positions with the union leadership. That way, you deprive the union of its strongest leaders in a way that they can't grieve. ("How dare you promote proven leaders?" won't get them far in court.) You also get the satisfaction of watching the firebrands who used to know everything discover constraints.

Or, you could simply ignore the criticism and go about your business as best you can. It's not ideal, but it's not the worst approach, either. If questioned, just affirm your belief in freedom of expression and go back to what you were doing.

Or, you could do your best imitation of Dr. Evil, go out on limbs that will be sawed off quickly in court, and make yourself look like an idiot in public. That seems to be the strategy here.

From high office, pettiness is amplified. That can be frustrating, since leaders have all the same human failings as everybody else, but less license to indulge them. That's the price of leadership. There's a real and generally unacknowledged unfairness to that, but there it is. If the best response to generally fair criticism you can come up with is to kick the critics off campus, you're probably in over your head. (I say 'generally fair' to distinguish this from, say, slander. Slander is not protected by academic freedom, and those who commit it are fair game.) Worse, playing the heavy in such an obvious way simply galvanizes the other side. One of the easiest ways to get a disparate group to cohere is to unite against a common enemy. Making yourself that enemy simply plays into their hands. It's an amateur's mistake.

I expect that the bans will be overturned posthaste, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this President's tenure end quickly. In a situation as bad as California's, you can't afford ineptitude at the highest levels. This is not how it's done.

Comments:
DD...however you spin it, the recession hit the universities because greedy (for power and prestige) administrators made the institutions all about money, ass kissing and ran the places with a slumlord mentality.

Open your eyes and see. When a top administrator left recently from my institution, the univ wrote about her work at the institution, in which the highest pride of place belonged to how much the endowment grew during her tenure. No mention was made of what research efforts she patronised, what teaching initiatives she undertook. Her profile was put out in the way a political campaign might mention its bundlers. Bloody lobbyists.

I am not so sure about CCs, but at least thats how the 4yr institutions work. You know that.
 
This is so off the point, but is squirrelly a regionalism? (New England, perhaps?) I've had problems with that word TWICE this week and was starting to think I hallucinated it. Now I see you use it (phew! I'm not crazy!), and I think maybe it's a regionalism I picked up from my (non-from-here) mother.
 
I'm the union president who was banned from campus. Since there are obvious legal issues surrounding this action, I won't comment on the reasons two other faculty members and I were suspended, but I will comment on the budget at Southwestern College (SWC).

A little background: In mid-September, deans and department chairs were ordered to cut class offerings by anywhere from 19-26%, depending on the department involved. This will amount to 429 class sections.

At our most recent Governing Board meeting, one Board member asked how much it would cost if these classes were retained. Answer: $1.3 to $1.7 million (a range which seems oddly broad).

SWC has over $11 million in unrestricted reserves. These reserves are equal to 11.6% of our projected expenditures. The California State Chancellor's Office recommends a prudent minimum reserve (and, yes, it's a "minimum," but it's also "prudent") of 5%. Simple arithmetic shows that our reserves are more than twice the recommended prudent minimum.

I've spent years doing union work, and I have understand the fundamentals of CA cc financing. I certainly understand that once reserves are spent, that's it. They're gone.

But I don't understand why SWC would sit on such a large pot of taxpayer money at the same time it moves forward with class cuts that will affect hundreds of adjunct teachers and thousands of students.

Our union has presented a plan (and, of course, it was never discussed) to save classes and students.

Part of it involves not paying--temporarily--into a fund for future medical benefits for retirees. This costs us $500K out of our operating budget--while at the same time we are paying (directly out of our operating budget) about $400K in ongoing costs for these same benefits. In other words, we're setting aside money for future medical benefits for retirees at the same time we're paying for current medical benefits for retirees. While this might be a sound idea in good times, it doesn't make sense to put money in the bank during a defecit year.

We could choose not pay into this fund (freeing up $500K), and we could use part of the existing fund (freeing up an additional $400K), and nearly $1 million would still remain in the fund.

That's a total of $900K, and the remaining money needed to keep classes intact could come from the reserves.

This is probably 'way too much information, and it is certainly specific to SWC only. But what bothers me the most is that class cuts aim at the heart of our school--students and teachers.

At SWC we're cutting from the bottom up instead of from the top down. Our President's total compensation package is about $250,000. Last year, he got an 8% raise (no one else did), and he filled two administrative positions that had been vacant. Currently, our college website says were hiring four new managers.

--Philip

Eyebrows: We say "squirrely" in Southern California.
 
Union President,

Without knowing more about your situation it is impossible to evaluate whether what you propose is possible or not. It may be contractual that those monies for healthcare are set aside each year. Moreover, I'm not sure how I would react as a tenure track person if my union suggested this - do I want to potentially sacrifice my future access to healthcare so that more adjuncts can be hired this year? As an administrator, do I want to risk creating an inevitable deficit in 5 years because of decisions I make today to save some sections? There’s never going to be a time when more money magically appears so how would the college deal with increasing retiree health costs if they were to rise suddenly in the future?

It seems reasonable on the surface to spend your reserves - but next year is certain to be worse financially than this year and there will be no stimulus to take the edge off. Your college may be doing the smartest thing they can with the resources they have available, planning not just for right now but for next year as well.

This situation sucks - no doubt about it. But one interpretation of your administration’s actions is that they are trying to amortize this pain over time rather than saving it up for one giant blood bath next year. Ensuring access is good. Saving jobs is good. But sacrificing your future to save today is not a winning strategy. I'm sure you'll appreciate this when you retire and your health benefits are still there for you.
 
Ivory: I'm planning on retiring in just a year or two, so you can bet your boots that I--and others in our union--have had considered exactly the long-term problems that you've raised.

The point I want to make is that this option, and many others, were never discussed. Instead, deans and department chairs received a directive: Cut classes anywhere from 19-26%. Period.

In the past, we've used an interest-based bargaining model at SWC to solve similar problems. All constituent groups--the faculty union, the classified union, classified confidentials, administrators representing administration, and administrators representing the district--were involved in these "big table" discussions.

Apparently, those days are over.

--Philip
 
I have to share DD's assessment that the SWC Administration's response to this is amateurish. How could they fail to anticipate the practical and legal consequences of their strong arm tactics? Was the groupthink so pervasive that no one involved in the decision dared point out what a bad move it was?

Episodes like this make me wonder what we can do to improve the hiring and selection processes for top-level admin positions in CCs.
 
My understanding is that this has been building for something like five years; there are all manner of almost-failed accreditations and suchlike littering the landscape.

Some institutions are simply ripe for a serious political player to enter them and suck them dry.
 
Or, you could take the crisis as an opportunity for a thorough reinvention of the college as a whole. This combines 'divide and conquer' with 'fiscal realism' and 'good PR.' Done well, this can lead to the college coming out stronger -- at least in relative terms -- than before.

"Reinvention" is the strategy being pursued at my alma mater, Oregon State. Well, sort of - it's more akin to disaster capitalism combined with privatization. It's clearly been in the planning for years, but the budget crunch in Oregon has given the admin folks cover, and they are running with it.

The issue is that the decisions have all clearly been made about where we're supposed to end up (and made without concern for cost, which makes using the budget crunch as cover something of an Emperor has no clothes strategy), and not only does that mean no one else - faculty, classified staff, students, unions - are being consulted, most of the rest of aren't even being told what's really going on. We're being fed lines and told to submit comments to anonymous online submission boxes so that they may be considered by those making the decisions. It's frighteningly authoritarian for a university and a great lesson in what happens when someone in a position of power tries to ram something through and does a very, very good job of it.

For a bit more, see this article.
 
I grew up in the midwest, where "squirrely" was a familiar term.

Disaster Capitalism. I like that. It would make a great name for a band.

Too bad DD wasn't there to inject rational thought into the groupthink that led to the actions we have read about in several places. I don't understand the proposal made by the union, since it seems rational to me to use part of the rainy day fund when you are in the middle of a hurricane/Depression. However, taking $1.5 million right now (which looks prudent) might not leave enough for the mid-year cut and the disaster that might be next year's budget. If this is as bad as it gets, then 1.5 this year and 1.5 each of the next 2 years might get you through it with a $5 million cushion, but who knows?

The real problem in California is that the students don't pay for their CC education, so when the state cuts the budget you are really stuck.

PS - The best part of the article about OSU was the photo of the faculty senate ... all sitting at the back of the room just like their students do. But what kind of bureaucrat puts Engineering with Business instead of Science? I know, one that thinks they are both Trade Schools!
 
I strongly suspect that the "cut off the head" approach, if taken by an employer subject to the National Labor Relations Act, would violate that statute. See my post at Workplace Prof Blog, which riffs on this issue: http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/laborprof_blog/2009/10/crush-a-union-by-promoting-its-leaders.html#comments.
 
I liked your post, I will bookmark your site and follow you!
 
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