Monday, July 17, 2006

The Passing Lane

You know that awful feeling when you’re driving in the right lane, and you’re behind someone who’s going a good 15 below the speed limit, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it because the left lane is going so much faster than you that you can’t move over without getting rear-ended? So you’re stuck behind this idiot precisely because he’s going so slowly?

That’s what it’s like when you’re trying to manage during budget cuts.

Budget cuts happen when the normal state of affairs isn’t getting the job done. They have the effect of taking away any slack in the budget, focusing only on the existing essentials. Paradoxically, they make future budget cuts more likely, since they prevent the development of new strengths that would make future cuts unnecessary.

As with job hunting, the best time to make changes is when you don’t need to. By the time you need to, it’s almost too late.

My college is taking another budgetary hit, and it’s putting a damper on developing the new programs and facilities that we need to develop to avoid taking even more hits. Phrases like ‘hiring freeze’ are being bandied about. Hiring freezes are incredibly blunt instruments that pretty much guarantee institutional decline, since they restrict the range of local expertise to what you already have, which is what got you in trouble in the first place. So we need to get into the passing lane, but we don’t have enough power to get up to speed quickly enough.

It’s frustrating. Since most of the expense in higher ed is labor, and labor is unlike other costs of production in that you can’t just set people aside, unused, indefinitely, any new program will involve taking on substantial new long-term costs. Since the costs are immediate but the resultant revenue prospective, you need some slack in the budget when you develop the new program. It takes money to make money. When we have to cut back, and most of our labor is tenured, the easiest cuts to make are in the area of people not-yet-hired.

Making matters worse, it’s possible to get grant money for equipment and even for buildings, but nearly impossible to get it for faculty salaries. (I’m told things are different at research universities; here I’m talking about cc’s.) In my state, the legislature is willing to entertain multi-billion dollar bond issues for higher ed construction, to address a capacity shortage, but is simultaneously cutting our operating funds. So we can build new classrooms, but we can’t hire anybody to teach in them. (If I were a cynical sort, I’d suggest that building contractors are politically connected. Good thing I’m not a cynical sort.)

In the relative boom years before I got here, the college let tuition go unraised for several years on end. As a result, no significant new programs were developed, and the faculty was allowed, gradually, to shrink. We’re paying for that now. Had the college raised tuition even just enough to keep up with inflation, there would have been enough slack in the budget for a few projects to get off the ground, generating enough enrollment gain to keep us going more steadily during the rough years. But noooo….

Someday, somewhere, I hope to manage during growth. Just by the damn law of averages, if I stick around long enough…