Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Cutting Your Way to Greatness

Has cutting your way to greatness ever worked?

I can’t think of a time that it has, yet it remains a common default mode.  

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting.  Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments.  Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts.  Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting.  Add an inexorably rising underlying cost -- say, just hypothetically, health insurance -- and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense.  It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal.  

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening.  That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future.  And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control.  Already, that’s a tallish order.

Assuming the requisite pattern recognition and emotional maturity, though, there’s the pesky second step of actually knowing how to interrupt the pattern.  That’s where a generational divide in leadership can be really glaring.

Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth.  Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.  

That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.  But folks who came up when that was the standard playbook can find themselves flummoxed when the old standbys don’t work anymore.

Internally, on campus, the same can be true in reverse.  Habits formed when higher education was a seller’s market don’t work now that it’s a buyer’s market, but letting go of those habits can be difficult, especially when they’ve come to be understood as the core of a professional identity.  Denial is easier, until it abruptly isn’t.

When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.  The old “more of everything” strategy is bankrupt, but “less of everything” isn’t any smarter.  

The task for the emerging generation of leadership isn’t just fiscal; it’s narrative.  We need to start telling stories that make sense of the world as it exists now.  Film is dead, but photography has never been more popular; those who couldn’t make the distinction came to grief.  Established business models are straining, but education is more important than ever; those who only understand one or the other of those will do great damage.  

We will not cut our way to greatness.  Nor will we build our way there.  We’ll have to work with what we actually can control in ways that previous generations didn’t.  That means some changes to long-established ways of doing things, some of which have taken on the aura of naturalness over time.  So be it.  Education matters too much to let it keep circling the drain.

This is one of my favorite Dean Dad posts ever. As a 40something working in higher ed, I feel every word of your generational analysis. Any chance we could get an extended essay (or a collection) on the topic?
I see your question as one of strategic planning. You are quite correct that cutting the size of the institution cannot be done on a whim as each budget cycle comes around. We did that during the Great Recession / Lesser Depression, and it was somewhere between not pretty and insane. (Drop positions by attrition, either retirements or moving on to a better job, and the biggest department could end up with no support staff and no leadership for the biggest cash-cow course in the college.) But if income is going down -- like if the legislature cuts per-pupil funding from its mid-recession low and enrollments slowly fade as a result of a temporary lull in birthrate until millenial kids start college -- then you do have to cut costs.

I saw something like this happen near the end of my grad school days. That university saw a modest drop in enrollment that continued for a decade or so, but it was compounded by a shift in interest from Evergreen subjects to Business and Engineering. Good luck transferring a professor from Sociology to Management. They went to zero adjuncts and zero hiring in some departments and were still losing money. Enrollment shifts were on the order of 50%! If you see it coming, you need to start planning now. (At least you can see it coming. We had no clue that dev ed would be abolished until the day before the bill was passed, although it took a year or two to implement it.)

You are 100% correct about visioning. A key could be to open the books and show what the trend lines predict. Statistics like the correlation between HS grad numbers and CC enrollment can be quite convincing if tied to revenue and budgets. Keeping the faculty out of the loop leads to counterproductive rumors and mistrust. Including them will add creative minds to the process. The trick is to have an honest discussion of those issues on campus while providing an upbeat narrative to the local stakeholders and future students.

Also agree 100% on debt, even when it isn't actually debt. We have one building that was built when someone hadn't looked at K-12 enrollments and birth rates a decade or two ago, but at least we only have to heat and cool it. The state paid for it.

Nice Sharing..! I have been following you for a couple of months now but this is my first time commenting on a blog post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. Keep up the good work. Already bookmarked for future reference.

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