Sometimes, she said, she has been encouraged to tell a horror story or indicate that the university will close if it doesn’t receive enough state funding, but few leaders are eager to talk down their own institutions.
The paragraph above, from a Chronicle story about public higher ed in Illinois, is specifically about a dilemma faced by Elaine Maimon, the President of Governors State University. But it could be applied to administrators in most of public higher education around the country.
College presidents and senior leaders have to balance imperatives that are sometimes in tension. They’re supposed to present the best possible public face of the institution at all times. And they have to communicate difficult, unpopular truths, such as the impact of budget cuts. As the gap between what is and what ought to be continues to widen, that tension gets worse.
Public statements, or even tones, that are wide of the mark can become self-fulfilling.
A leader who is too candid or blunt about the challenges an institution faces can trigger a death spiral. If the external community starts to believe that the college is declining, enrollments will drop, political support will drop, and a death spiral may very well ensue. Internally, too much crisis talk from leadership can lead to a siege mentality, which rarely leads anywhere good.
But too much optimism has costs, too. Several years ago a well-meaning state official visited the campus where I worked and, thinking he was being supportive, expressed amazement that after years of cuts, we were still doing such good work. The message we heard on campus was “we can keep cutting you without pushback.” It was incredibly demoralizing, and this was from someone who actually meant well. Constant positive messaging can mask the negative effects of years of sustained fiscal neglect, thereby licensing more neglect. Legislators are always looking to feed the insatiable beast of health care costs; any cuts they can make without evident pain, they’ll make. Too much optimism hides the evidence.
(Health care costs deserve a post of their own. Suffice it to say, until we get those under control, they will crowd out nearly everything else. When your aid is flat and your benefit costs go up ten percent per year, the math is inexorable.)
Internally, too much optimism can lead to either a credibility gap or, more commonly, a culture of denial. It’s difficult to sell the message “we’re outstanding, and we desperately need to change.” Too much focus on the need to change tends to offend incumbents, who are often quite skilled at wars of attrition; too much happy talk encourages people to ignore the need to change at all.
Many presidents handle the challenge by resort to verb tense: the present is fine, but the future is in doubt if trends continue. Sometimes it’s true, and it offers a way to alert outsiders without offending insiders. But over time, it’s hard to sustain. With notable exceptions, such as Illinois, the issues are usually of steady erosion over time, rather than abrupt catastrophe. Is a single cut of two percent devastating? No, not really. Are ten consecutive years of two percent cuts devastating? Yes. But the context of the ten-year view isn’t always top-of-mind. And forever pushing back the moment when consequences will strike both takes previous cuts as natural, and starts to sound like crying wolf.
From the top, in public, it’s usually best to default to optimism. To the extent that prophecies are self-fulfilling, that’s the direction I’d rather fulfill. It’s a bit like Pascal’s wager: the upside only points in one direction. But the underlying urgency is only getting stronger.