Monday, March 07, 2011


Nobody Calls

In a recent discussion with a very highly-placed political figure, I heard something disturbing. We were talking about the series of cuts that public higher ed has taken over the last few years, and why it seems like the legislature keeps coming back for more. He mentioned that he has had some candid discussions with legislators, and this is what they told him:

When they cut budgets for police, the phones ring off the hook. When they cut budgets for fire departments, the phones ring. When they cut budgets for K-12, the phones ring. But when they cut public higher ed, nobody calls. (Naturally, when they raise taxes, the phones never stop ringing.)

It bothered me because it rang true (no pun intended).

It's disturbing on a number of levels. Most basically, it suggests that public higher ed will be at a consistent disadvantage, relative to other parts of the state budget, for the foreseeable future. It's hard to argue that we don't need police or elementary schools, and neither of those has significant alternative revenue sources. (Yes, some towns raise entirely too much via speeding tickets, but the basic point still stands.) Colleges and universities do. From the perspective of a legislator trying to cut spending somewhere, higher ed is a relatively easy target.

(To his credit, and correctly, he also noted that the real budget-buster is health care. The rate of cost increases for health insurance is so catastrophic that over the long term, almost nothing else matters. Since Obama blew his chance at a rational single-payer system, I foresee serious financial hurt for the rest of the public sector in the coming decade, even after the economy recovers.)

Why doesn't anybody call?

Yes, some of the unions do, but I'm talking about the public at large. (I don’t live or work in Wisconsin, so we don’t have the mixed blessing of a governor feeding us red meat.)

Part of it, I think, is the delicate balance of people in a reputational business. You don't want to come out and say “after all these years of cuts, the college simply sucks now.” That pretty much invites campus closure, even if that's the opposite of the intent. Once word gets out that a college is circling the drain, enrollments crater, public support vanishes, the best staff start to leave, and the death spiral accelerates. Yet you don't want to be too blithe, either. If you put a happy face forward no matter what happens, you make the path of least resistance entirely too obvious. If cuts don't hurt, and the state needs cuts, then what do you think will happen?

Since higher ed leaders can't give candid accounts of the damage already done, and are too smart to pretend that nothing is wrong, they fall back (by default) on warnings of future harm. “We're still good, but further cuts will erode...” That way they can protest the bad stuff without inadvertently jeopardizing their own viability as a student and staff destination.

But after years of that, the public has grown jaded. We've had warnings of imminent apocalypse for decades, yet it never seems to happen. The damage manifests gradually, with enough lag to make it difficult for casual observers to connect the dots. (Those of us in the trenches see it, but most people's attention is otherwise engaged.) Since reputations are both imperfect and lagging indicators, it can take many years for real damage to alter public perceptions. By then, you’re too far gone to rebuild easily, and enough other things have happened that it’s difficult to pin the blame cleanly on any one thing.

After so many years of cuts, college leaders start to sound like the boy who cried ‘wolf.’ In this case, the wolf is real, which just makes matters worse.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a realistic and practical way to get the phones ringing?

This is only a theory in my head thus far, but I think we (here I'm speaking specifically of faculty in the humanities) have to do more work in the classroom that enables students to consider the value of higher education (particularly in the humanities). That is, if I design an introductory writing course that takes as a primary (or even partical focus) the value of higher education, students might actually start thinking hard about why they're in college to begin with. Why it matters, how it shapes their intellectual lives as well as their career goals, and how higher education is impacted by economic, political, and cultural factors that need critical attention. If they can start thinking about those things, valuing their experience, and advocating for the cause of higher education, then maybe they (or their children) will pick up the phone to call. Just a thought...
Get parents to advocate for the school. I know that students should be responsible for what's going on with their education, but how many of them vote? Their parents, on the other hand, are financially impacted by funding changes that get passed along through fees and are much more likely to be registered voters.

You could also do something similar to what the Obama campaign did and ask students to make calls at critical times using their cell phones. Send out a mass e-mail, explain the problem (provide talking points), include the name of the local representatives and their office phone number and ask students to pass the info to their parents for additional calls. Make a facebook page for your campus that posts info about campus events and things you are proud of but also sends out the occassional call to the phone lines. You want to establish a base of supporters that you can call on in a crisis - and if you use facebook or e-mail, it costs almost nothing and you keep in touch with the students after they leave your campus, increasing your ability to call on their support.

The other group you need to have on speed dial is the group of businesses that benefit from your programs. Calls from them will matter a great deal and they have every reason to advocate for you (the cheapest source of job training around). Make sure they get the college newsletter on a regular basis and invite them on campus to see what you do. I know you are busy but if they hear from students and faculty what the cuts mean, it might make things more real for them.
If you are convinced that all your existing offerings have already been pared down as far as they can be, but legislators are demanding more cuts, then the only thing left to do is to shut down some program. Find one that is some combination of unpopular, expensive, and poor-to-mediocre. Announce that it will be shut down as the current students graduate.

Chances are this will hit the press, and the legislators will come running. Attention from them is good. Tell them how much money it would take to keep the program, and if they tell you to cut something else, have a list of real alternatives ready for them.

I would expect them to either a) get you the money you need, b) let you go ahead with the cuts, or c) pick one of the alternative service reductions, with maybe a bit of fine-tuning this way and that. Every one of these is better than continued across-the-board erosion.
Part of our problem is that we suck it up and go out and do the best jobs we can. As a result, students do not see most of the damaging changes that have already occurred. Like most colleges, we cut Instruction last, because it brings in tuition. So, we have laid of counselors and staff in library, financial aid, maintenance, food service, bookstore, printing etc. All of the above make OUR lives worse, but students are not deeply impacted. Sure, it takes longer to process financial aid applications and the waiting line for the bookstore cashier is too long, but none of this is catastrophic. That's because students can still get most of their classes. Now if that changed, I think that legislators WOULD see their phones ringing off the hook.

In my state, the universities routinely play Chicken with the legislature: "If you cut our allocation, we will cut the number of students we accept". Meanwhile, the CCs just gamely carry on, doing the best with what they've got, trying to reach the same (or higher!) enrollment targets with less money.

Our problem is that we are too good at making it all work despite the cuts.
Hire a public relations specialist and get the information out to the public through the various great ways mentioned by Ivory.

Some other ways occur to me. Set up a foundation and get a list of alumnae. Establish something like endowed chairs with alumnae foundation donations. Name the chairs after beloved professors who are professors emeritus or have passed away. Call the alumnae and let them choose to which chair they would like to contribute.

On your webpage, spotlight professors each month. (See the Rate My Professors rebuttals to students for how great this is when done well.)

Spotlight a variety of alumnae in a 30-45 second video speech, (like "You've Got . . ." on AOL) with what they learned at the cc or their favorite memories or how important the cc is. Put this on the cc's webpage and send each one to each contributor's email.

Let the community know what the cc is doing and help the community feel ownership of the cc. Find out how much money the cc brings to the community and publicize it.

I'm sure a public relations person could come up with many more.
Partner with your campus unions. Yeah sure, union leaders call and identify themselves as union leaders. But the unions themselves should be able to help you do a better job of mobilizing their members/your community to make calls as individuals (not as union members).

For example, in my state the Governor has decided that presidents of all public universities must come to a special week-long hearing and grovel for funds. This isn't for extra funds, or even to maintain status quo - they're groveling to get the "least bad" cuts possible to budgets. Word has gone round that it will be a competition (who can bow & scrape the best). How humiliating, both personally (for the presidents) and system-wide (so much for valuing education).

So what can we do? Well yes, the unions will have their leaders there on the day when their campus president must grovel. But also, we're doing phone banking and letter/email writing campaigns to the legislature among our membership. Heck, if 10% of our members make that call, the office phones in the state capitol will be ringing all day long.

In these times, your local unions are your allies, not your enemies. Or anyway, they can be.
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How to get the phones ringing? After the next round of cuts, turn the thermostat in the college down to 55. When students ask why it's so damn cold, administrators can explain that the recent budget cuts have forced you to choose between heating and offering a quality education. At this point, the only thing left to do is to let the students know the phone numbers for their elected officials. Frankly, I'm amazed this hasn't already been done; I've seen it done outside the US.
>>For example, in my state the Governor has decided that presidents of all public universities must come to a special week-long hearing and grovel for funds. This isn't for extra funds, or even to maintain status quo - they're groveling to get the "least bad" cuts possible to budgets. Word has gone round that it will be a competition (who can bow & scrape the best). How humiliating, both personally (for the presidents) and system-wide (so much for valuing education).<<

Offensive posts like this that combine complete ignorance of the legislative process with unmatched arrogance are THE PROBLEM.

Setting aside a week for presidents to come and explain to a legislative committee why their priorities are important is not "groveling." In fact, setting aside a week to deal specifically with educational issues is a way of helping the universities make their points - if they really wanted to screw higher ed, they would do it in a back room with no press and no opportunity for input.

I do not get at all why you think it is humiliating for a college president to ask the state for most cases, they are hired based on their ability to ask donors for money. And it's not like the wealthy donors are having to decide between money for higher ed, money for Medicaid, or money for child services.

In most state legislatures, if you get 15 independent calls (not phone bank calls or orchestrated calls) in one district on a particular issue, it's a real emergency. The key, as Johan suggested, is to cut (or threaten to cut) programs that really affect people. Things like dropping popular courses, closing the library on weekends.

If the effect of cuts is that a prof teaches an extra class per year...well, that won't really send people to the barricades. ("Hello, Sen. X, I think your budget cuts are really hurting my school because my professor looks tired all the time. And sometimes he's kind of irritable. Could you restore the $45 million you cut from the budget this year so he can get some rest?"

When the city council was looking at particularly deep cuts in the library, the library announced that it would have to close 4-5 branches (choosing particularly popular ones (which, to be fair, are also more expensive)). This led to calls and reduced cuts, which was about as good as could be expected.
Obviously, the thing to do is to continue to hide the problem from students and parents, so they have no reason to contact their legislators.

In addition, you should continue to expend no effort on a public image for your school and system, carefully allow your alumni networks to disperse without tracking, and deny your students and parents access to tools to make it easy for them to contact their lawmakers.

I'm sorry to be sarcastic, but this is a weird conversation. Your CC has gone to enormous effort to avoid phone calls going to legislators. If you want that to change, the first thing to do is to stop doing those things.
I gotta have:
Childhood Education
Fire departments

I *really* want
high quality civic services
advanced education
Public Library
Public Pool
Community centers

I'd like to have everything on both lists. But we can't afford it right now. The city I live in is closing the public library, going to half day kindergarden, and reducing the police budget. We alraedy went through a winter with much a much lower road clearing budget. There have been propoals to raist taxes, but with the unemployment and falling home prices they've all been rejected.

So i get that you want more money. But the public doesn't have any go give.
"joe" explains quite clearly why we have seen the economy lag despite huge job growth in the private sector -- because of job cutbacks in the public sector. (That the Republican campaign slogan from last fall said the exact opposite is irrelevant when one looks at the facts.) However, most of the things on the priority list are local services paid for by local taxes, whereas our state's system of higher education is funded by a legislature where national money plays a bigger role.

As I see it, one problem we have at the CC level is that people think we are richly funded and that our staff live high on the hog. Do we dare mention how much we get from the state for each freshman comp class compared to what Flagship U gets for that same student taught by the same adjunct? Should we make sure people know what our PhD faculty get paid and how they spend their time compared to the situation at universities?
Oh yeah, I forgot "pay all of your adjuncts starvation wages and carefully keep them out of the faculty union." That was another great move by the CC to make cuts to the system invisible.
@joe: crabs in a bucket, man. Crabs in a bucket. Let's eat us some seed corn.
"despite huge job growth in the private sector"

Not in my area. Nothing but severe erosion in private employment. Maybe in Texas or someplace else, but the economy is stagnant in New England.

I have to agree with Joe, the taxpayers have been bled white. The first wave of foreclosures was over unpaid mortgages, the next wave will be unpaid property taxes.

It might be that nobody is calling because the general public is beginning to realize we have excess capacity in the higher ed area. See, e.g., Krugman.
The fundamental problem in the American economy is that the Federal Government has two massive untapped sources of revenue, and it refuses to tap either -- the unpaying wealthy and the bond markets.

As long as Obama agrees with Congressional Republicans that the job of the Federal Government is to act as a brake on the economy during a recession, things are just not going to get better. Add to that the unseriousness about financial reform, and you see a picture of total failure.

I had hopes, I really did. Well, he's welcome to change his mind.
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