Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dentist? Nooo...

This piece on fiscal exigency and tenure got me thinking about an unexpected call I got about fifteen years ago.

I was a grad student at Flagship State. I had read an article in the student newspaper that quoted the university President saying that the university would have to do more with less. Since I was concerned that my T.A. position might go away, I wrote a letter to the President (this was back when people still occasionally used snail mail) to urge him to rethink the wisdom of declaring publicly that the university would have to do more with less, since I was concerned that the legislature would take that as permission to hack away. I assumed my letter would go into the circular file, but I felt better for having sent it.

About a week later, after I had forgotten about it, the President called me at home. He identified himself as "Dr. so-and-so," which created a moment of panic. Dentist? Nooo.... Regular doctor? Nooo.... Oh, right!

The university had tens of thousands of students, plus however many employees and such, so it didn't occur to me that I'd get more than a form letter.

Once I figured out who he was, we had a surprisingly good conversation for probably ten minutes. I explained the basis of my concern, and he assured me that he had been misquoted. He then rattled off a few of his achievements, about which I didn't care, before getting to the points that stuck with me. One was that he was happy to address what he repeatedly called "a responsible letter." It took a few days for that one to sink in; he was basically trying to draw a distinction between a civil request and the usual shouting. The second, though, was about reputations.

In outlining my concern that the legislature would take his comments as a green light to cut everything, I argued that he should make a strong public case for the damage done by the existing cuts, and the greater damage that could be done by more. He replied that higher education is a reputational business, and that a President shouting doom-and-gloom could actually make the damage worse. He explained that he had to accentuate the positive with the legislature, even in the face of bad news, lest the university go from 'resource' to 'problem.' He also didn't want to take the chance of the public overreacting, and turning away from the university.

That really stuck with me, since it seemed to explain a lot.

The call came back to me when I read this piece. It outlines objections by the AAUP to colleges laying off tenured faculty without first declaring "financial exigency."

What would it mean to declare "financial exigency" in a reputational business?

You don't declare a fiscal emergency because funding is tight. You declare it because you're circling the drain. That means there's no contradiction between "we're in fiscal trouble" and "we haven't declared exigency." The reason you don't declare it unless you're circling the drain is that it sets off a chain reaction.

Declarations of exigency bring political intervention, lawsuits, drastic drops in donor confidence, brain drains, and terrible press. I wouldn't send my kid to a college that declared publicly that it's on life support; I'd want my kid to go somewhere that will still be there when she's done. A state of emergency declared too soon can become self-fulfilling.

That can put administrators in an awkward position when budgets are bad. In the absence of hard measures, people go by reputation; you need to assure the outside world, as much as you can, that all is well. Even if there are serious fiscal issues, you don't want to plant the seed of thinking that the college is going downhill, because once people think that, it's likelier to come true. Yet at the same time you have to send the message internally that matters are serious, that you aren't crying wolf, and that changes need to be made. That's a narrow strike zone. You want to inspire enough confidence that things keep running, but not so much that people expect the impossible. You want to impress upon the legislature that more funding is needed, without giving the impression that they'd simply be tossing good money after bad. And you want to maintain your credibility in the process. That's difficult on a good day.

An artless administrator will respond with doublespeak, evasion, or incoherence, and those have all happened. Maintaining a steady presence is difficult when you're being pulled in multiple directions at once. It's that much harder when the underlying truth is in contradictory motion, which it has been since the Great Recession started and we've had a macabre tug-of-war between state deficits and ARRA maintenance-of-effort requirements. Some administrators apparently get so desperate to tell their truth that they call grad students at home and explain it to them. Others of us prefer to blog.

I never sent a thank-you note to Dr. so-and-so for the call, and I feel a little guilty about that. For reasons I'm only starting to understand, he helped a twentysomething nobody understand that it's not that simple. I hope this post pays it forward. And I'm sorry I mistook him for my dentist.