Friday, December 18, 2009


Chestnuts, Roasting in an Open Blog...

A new correspondent writes:

I'm in the market for for an administrative position in higher ed, and as I've been interviewing, I've noticed two distinct approaches to budget cuts. The first is an across-the-board cut: all departments (or employees or some other variation on this theme) get a 5% cut. The second is to pare underperforming departments and to spare the remaining ones any significant cuts. Any general thoughts?

I could have sworn I had done a piece on this old chestnut, but a quick search didn't reveal one. That's okay; it's worth revisiting anyway.

First, good luck walking into any new administrative role in which your first job is to make cuts. That's a hell of a first impression to make on a new campus. Although people should know better, and they do at some level, there will still be real political damage done. Think of it as skipping the honeymoon and getting straight to the arguments about money. You may be able to recoup some of the losses later when the budgets bounce back, but it's still a rough way to start.

That said, you play the hand you're dealt. Given the need to cut, which way to go?

The advantage to the across-the-board method is that it's quick and relatively easy. It doesn't require much specific local knowledge, which makes it especially appealing for a newcomer. It's unlikely to cause imminent disaster. It reduces the political infighting, at least in the short term, and it's easier to reverse when/if things rebound.

The disadvantage is that it doesn't do anything to improve the long-term strength of the college. When you cut the most productive programs as much as the least, you send a powerful message that productivity doesn't matter. Worse, you actually wind up rewarding waste, since the areas with histories of frugality have to cut bone, while the areas with histories of boondoggle can get away with trimming fat. Over the years, folks will figure that out, and your budget will get lumpy as people squirrel away resources in bizarre places so they'll know what to cut first when the next inevitable crisis hits. I've actually seen this. To add insult to injury, your best people will start leaving, since they'll sense futility on the home front, and your worst people will dig in and get incredibly defensive and bitter. Repeat the cycle a few times, and you wind up with a badly poisoned well.

It's a defensible response to an obviously short-term crisis, but it doesn't work well over time.

The actually-make-choices approach is much riskier in the short term, and it carries a higher risk of imminent disaster. But if you get it right, it opens the possibility of actually strengthening the college over time. Getting it right would involve the standard moves -- the SWOT analysis, environmental scan, etc. -- but also a serious and sustained public conversation with the college as a whole. When push comes to shove, what does your college really care about? (This could be a very tricky exercise for a newcomer, but if you can pull it off, you'll really achieve something.) Will future success require emphasizing a different set of programs, or doubling down on the existing core? What does your college offer that its relevant competitors don't? Is athletics the route to prosperity, a necessary part of local culture, or an afterthought? (Depending on context, it could be any of those.) Are there some historical holdovers, programs that were created in different times that just never quite worked?

The key thing here is that it isn't just about finding the right answer. It's about getting the college to find it with you. Involving more people in the process leading up to the decision will take time and patience, and you'll have to endure some not-very-much-fun moments. But if it works, you'll wind up with a better answer, and with one that might actually stick. You'll minimize the political backlash, and improve the chances of keeping your best people. It costs more time and effort upfront, but for a long-term crisis, it's the way to go.

One admin's opinion, anyway. Good luck on your search!

Wise and worldly readers, what advice would you give?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

My take is a little different from DD's.

For someone new, I would make the across the board cuts the first year. This buys you time to figure out what's going on at the school. Then next year (which will be worse than this year was, at least in my state) you can take a more nuanced approach AFTER you have taken time to think and live in the place for a while. You can even set goals for the college this first year and make your decisions about budget based on performance and cooperation. I think DDs method, while a better long term strategy, is too hard to implement quickly without gathering lots of information. It's a kind of double or nothing approach.

Bottomline, I would be very cautious making targeted changes before you really know what the consequences are. There's always next year.
IF you get it right. I would recommend a hybrid approach like Ivory suggests, particularly for a new admin.

You need to be sure the metric you use to evaluate programs and (especially) support units (where cost per student is harder to measure) is in sync with the long-term goals of the college. I've seen a university make decisions based on detailed quantitative measurements that emphasized short-term issues that ran counter to its stated long-term goals! After all, goals change over time, and a college might not have brought those changes into into its conscious mind of policy. Is retention more important than learning outcomes or pass rates on licensing exams?

Learning how the college ranks various goals might be your second priority, right after getting data that link accounting information to the diverse goals of the college.
I was going to say something very similar to what Ivory wrote. It's my experience that people just moving into mid-level administration don't really understand how research and pedagogy work in disciplines not their own. So it's very hard for a brand-new administrator to tell which departments are "underperforming." Give yourself some time to figure out how things work. The worst thing a new administrator can do is to move in and start hacking and slashing on day one, before he/she has learned the culture of a place and how it operates.
Of course, there's also the unsettling fear that, if one takes the second approach, one will discover that the only thing the university truly cares about is football, and academics as a whole is really just gravy. What should one do in that situation? Reinforce the prevailing ethos, or attempt to shift budgetary onus back toward teaching and research? (And yes, I've biased the question. No apologies for my subjective viewpoint.)
Would that I worked where either/or was an option. We're forced to do both this year, with probably more of the same next year. It's brutal. I guess the upside is that the discussion has forced us to clarify our priorities, and teaching/learning comes out on top. Even so, there's a lot of room for argument about which teaching, and who should be able to get the learning. Best of luck to the original poster moving into managment at a new place in this climate.
I'm not an administrator, but I've got 30 years in education at cc and public school level. So this is from my experience as one who would be affected by cuts.

20 or so years ago, our school got a new principal, an outsider. On her first day on the job, she got our phone in the teacher's lounge working by calling the proper department (after a whole school year of it not working, so if we had to call parents or make a personal call, we had to use the counselor's or principal's phone when they weren't using their offices. This was before cell phones). We teachers would have followed her to hell and back after that. No matter what she did afterward we would have supported her. She made her mark as a woman who cared about her teachers and the children's education because she helped the teachers. Of course, we teachers let other teachers at other schools know how much we liked her and how great she was. Thus, she got a reputation in the district as a principal who cared about her school staff.

She got in trouble at the main office for going outside proper channels, but she was well connected and she was in her "honeymoon" time (all newbies have that time when their mistakes are put down to inexperience with the existing culture/protocol and mistakes during that time are taken with a grain of salt--slap on the wrist).

So, I suggest you explain to all who are affected by the 5% cuts that they can keep one thing which means a lot to the department. Let them choose and let them keep it. If it is too expensive, then explain to them why they will have to choose another thing.

Take advantage of this "honeymoon" time to not worry so much about making mistakes. Everyone makes them.

You will do fine because you care. That caring will come out in everything you do and the staff will sense it and forgive you if something is hard for them. They may gripe, but they will sense your caring and that counts for a lot.
Ooh, good point. Every institution has some minor thing that hasn't been seen to for a ridiculous time, due to an ongoing blind spot. It'd be like Obama fixing the TSA.
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