Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Support and Context

“I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.” -- Hole

What does it mean to “support” a program?

I’m running into that question headfirst these days, since it’s time to review proposed budgets for next year. And I’m inundated with proposals for increases of 40 percent, 80 percent, and more. This in a context of flat-to-sliding enrollments and flat state aid.

I don’t think any of the requests are ridiculous, on their own terms. In many cases, they make perfect sense if you look at the one department in isolation. Even where they’re a little ambitious, that’s all they are; I haven’t seen any that I would call absurd or corrupt.

What struck me -- other than the magnitude of some of the numbers -- was the different sense of context.

From a department’s perspective, the relevant context is temporal. “We’ve been waiting for this position for years. We’ve been very patient. Now it’s time to support us.” (Or, more annoyingly, “we fought for this position.”) In some cases, there are references to positions lost years ago, with the implication that they’re somehow still there. The story told is of patience exhausted, combined with a not-subtle threat of political hell if their request is denied.

From my perspective, the relevant context is spatial -- I have to look across the departments. Given flat funding overall, a massive increase for department A can only come at the expense of a massive cut for department B. (The administration already gave at the office; we reorganized to reduce the number of deans first.) The temporal argument -- “we’ve been waiting” -- does nothing to change that. And I’ve literally never -- not once -- seen a budgetary proposal from a department that suggested another department to cut to pay for it. That has never happened, and I’m not holding my breath.

When I deny many of the requests, which the laws of mathematics dictate I have to, some of the departments will accuse me of not “supporting” them. And that’s where I take issue.

Support can refer to money, obviously. At some level, it has to. But it can also refer to truth-telling and empowerment.

Aristotle noted that the opposite of a friend is not an enemy, but a flatterer. That’s because both friends and enemies can bring out your strengths -- what he called “virtues” -- but a flatterer brings out your weaknesses. By telling you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear, the flatterer leaves you exposed to your own shortcomings.

In that light, I’m concerned that giving false hope and hollow promises is worse than saying no.
The problem is that some people like being flattered.

I’m hoping to shift the dynamic over time from “how much more can we get?” to “what are we actually trying to do?” I agree that more money would be great, and I vote accordingly, but any clearsighted analysis would have to conclude that waiting for the money fairy is a losing strategy. In the absence of the money fairy, we can stamp our feet and call each other names, or we can come to grips with the reality of the situation. In the second approach lies hope for actual progress.

And that’s where my definition of support comes in. I’m trying to nudge the campus culture. My theory is that we’ll make better decisions for the college as a whole if constraints are acknowledged as real, rather than simply ascribed to the sinister motives of individual administrators. Support, in this case, means support for coming to grips with reality. The default argument that “we’re already doing what’s best, so just write us ever-larger checks” just isn’t sustainable anymore.

Success would look something like this: noticing that it can’t do everything it wants to do with the budget it has, but also noticing that there aren’t exactly spare bags of cash lying around, a department proposes a small study of innovations taking place at comparable colleges. It suggests an experiment or two to try to improve student outcomes. And the support it looks for is reassurance that if the first (or second) pilot project doesn’t work, it won’t be punished; failure will be safe. Experimentation will be rewarded, and some failed experimentation will be acknowledged as a cost of doing business.

Whether or not the money fairy will eventually return when the Great Recession finally fades away, we’ll be in better shape if we’ve spent the intervening time honing our strengths. It’s a more sustainable strategy over time, and, in my mind, a more ethical one. But first we have to get past the idea that saying no to a 40 percent increase means that The Administration doesn’t support the faculty. Sometimes support means still being there after the fantasy of Santa has gone away.

I will note that many of my administrations (not the current one, thankfully), have used what you call temporal strategies for managing money. If you've been told to "wait your turn" then it's reasonable to expect that eventually it will be your turn to get a bit of money.
Your problem is in this sentence:

"Experimentation will be rewarded, and some failed experimentation will be acknowledged as a cost of doing business. "

1) What is the reward and when? 2) What constitutes "some" failed experimentation? It's highly likely that these programs have heard everything that you're saying before. What you're describing isn't exactly some radical approach to administration. The problem is, if those "rewards" are never specified and if they never come through, and if "some" failure is never defined, well, nobody is going to trust you. They've been burned too many times by people who have tried to sell them this particular bill of goods before.

The problem isn't that faculty are stupid, or that they are unreasonable, or that they want to blame evil-doing administrators, or that they don't understand the notion of finite resources. It's just because after years of being told that one has to do more with less, at a certain point people stop trusting that there will be any result to that other than their own continued exploitation. And, ultimately, in a system that makes departments put in budget requests each year, and in a situation with finite resources, it is the case that the only programs that will get resources are the ones that ask for them. Those who don't, or who ask for less in order to be kind to their dean, aren't likely to see any benefit for keeping their mouths shut.

In short: what you're coming up against is the crappy part of your job. But it is *your* job - to look at these requests and to judge how to handle them. It's not, ultimately, the faculty's job to make it more comfortable for you to do that.
"we’ll make better decisions for the college as a whole if constraints are acknowledged as real"

Absolutely. We did, so you can.

Suggestion. Put the budgets out there for all to see in a clear summary format. Fixed costs like salaries, benefit costs over time, average salary across broad categories (such as upper admin, staff, faculty, adjuncts), students per staff, utilities. Be sure to define the true cost of a position, because most faculty are not aware of hidden costs like FICA and retirement payments. Also be sure to clarify how your decision making process works.

Do some teaching. Lay it out in a way that says if you, from the Evergreen world, can understand it, so can others who are not in the math department.

Support can mean clearly articulating that expensive programs (such as Nursing) are worth it, and acknowledging WITH DATA how hard everyone is working in every area of the college.
had not heard the Aristotle comment, and i consider myself edjamakated. never too late to learn.

very interesting post and comments to me, outside academia. thanks.
On this subject Dickeson's _Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance_ gives some ideas for how to move towards a culture of "what are we actually trying to do?"
At our Compass State U, the sports programs get an ever increasing share of the pie. I know that the funding for sports comes from different sources than academic funding. Nevertheless, it rankles faculty to see more and more money going to support athletics when academics have to make do with less and less. At least your CC doesn't face that particular issue. I don't mind if another academic dept gets a bonus now and then, but when sports gets priority--grrrrrr!
Yeah, it seems like this is one of the areas where transparency would be key. The State has decided to saddle you with impossible mandates, given the resources it has allocated. You have the unenviable task of combining abuse of adjuncts with denial of adequate resources to create a vague semblance of a higher education experience which can serve at least the needs of the students who are savvy enough to game the system.

That's so far from the ideals of the ivory tower that people who joined up to improve lives and educate human beings are going to have a tough time seeing how bad it is.
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