Monday, January 24, 2005

Low-Hanging Fruit

I’m beginning to feel like the Typhoid Mary of budget cuts. My previous school started a downward spiral financially just as I went into administration; I had to lay off a friend before I left, which still ranks as one of my least favorite things to do, ever. Now, the community college to which I escaped is starting to feel a real pinch. Annual double-digit health care cost increases, combined with several years of flat state aid and county aid rising only at the rate of inflation, are taking their toll.

(Note to Republicans: if Clinton’s health care plan had passed, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Just a thought…)

So now I’ve watched two different kinds of college deal with belt-tightening. While this doesn’t even begin to approach the comparative work I cried out for in my last entry, it’s more than I’ve read anywhere else, so here goes. (Keep in mind, these are a for-profit technical college and a community college – the costs faced by a research institution are very different.)

The first things to go are ‘discretionary’: travel, journal subscriptions, office parties. Nobody can get terribly upset about these – you can always make the office party potluck --- but they don’t get you very far. A flexible freeze (slush?) on hiring comes next, assuming that hadn’t already been done. These are no fun at all, and much less efficient than they might seem. You’re locking in the most expensive employees and freezing out their cheaper alternatives, thereby ratcheting up your average age (and health care costs). You’re also preserving your existing staff imbalances in amber, which is never a good idea.

‘Release time,’ or course reductions offered faculty to work on other projects, usually gets axed. While it’s tempting to look at release time as featherbedding, most of what I’ve seen it used for has been more than legit. The problem with cutting release time is that the tasks for which it was used still exist; it’s just that they suddenly go uncompensated. Typically, the high performers were the ones with release time, since they were the ones who could be trusted not to treat it as a sinecure. In essence, then, the high performers wind up with what amount to pay cuts, the low performers chuckle with cynical wisdom, and those in between do the math. After a couple rounds of this, good luck getting anyone to volunteer for projects.

(Release time also falls prey to Dilbert Budgeting. It’s usually budgeted as a fraction of a professor’s salary. If a professor who makes 50k usually teaches ten courses a year, a reduction of one course per semester is budgeted at 10k. In reality, the cost is the cost of replacing her with adjuncts for those two courses, which is closer to 3k. Where the other 7k goes, nobody knows. Sucked into the void, as we used to say in the 80’s.)

Minimum enrollments for sections to not get cancelled usually increase, although these changes are easier to declare than to enforce. (A ‘section’ is one timeslot for a course. We might run 30 sections of General Psychology in a semester.) While it sounds like good discipline to say No More Small Sections, the reality is that the smaller sections usually exist for a reason – the only section available for night students, say, or a graduation requirement, or everything else is full. A little belt-tightening here can yield a slight benefit, but it’s harder than it sounds. (Student preferences are harder to change than faculty preferences, contrary to popular belief. I’ve had faculty volunteer to run Friday classes, we’ve scheduled them, and five students sign up. As long as students all want the same timeslots, new efficiencies will be hard to find.)

Usually, we also start to put the brakes on expensive technology purchases as well, which probably saves more than everything else listed so far. It works brilliantly for a year, but you can’t really go beyond that without seriously impacting your programs.

At the for-profit, job descriptions started to change. Just as I was leaving, promotion criteria for faculty were being revised to include helping the Admissions department recruit students. At the community college, the union contract is devilishly specific about job duties, so this kind of move (whatever its wisdom) is largely precluded.

(Larger schools always add ‘deferred maintenance’ to the list. Gotta admit, this has always struck me as opaque. It sounds better than ‘let the campus go to seed,’ I guess, but the reality is that it usually means ‘start hitting up donors for new buildings, and don’t work on the old ones until the new ones are built.’ I’ve heard administrators, in public, admit that this category exists mostly to bluff unions. At the community college, we have too few buildings for anyone to take this bluff seriously.)

These are the low-hanging fruit. They’ve mostly been picked by now. The next steps are much uglier – phasing out smaller programs, administrative consolidation (again, looks good on the outside, until you see the work involved…), combining academic departments, etc. With each of these, someone’s ox is being gored. Not necessarily a bad thing, but far more conflictual than the earlier measures. In a tenure-based environment, conflicts have a way of lingering.