Thursday, July 13, 2006

Reward or Fix?

We’re doing budget dances again.

With steadily dwindling resources, now we have to make choices between rewarding programs that have achieved growth, and fixing programs that have sprung leaks in recent years. It’s pretty much either/or; we don’t have the money to do both.

The problem is that either solution on its own is wrong.

If we take the ‘money sends messages’ approach and use what little we have to reward the areas that have grown, we will continue to bleed out in the other areas. If we shore up the holes, we will be punishing success. Neither is good.

(And no, ‘academic considerations’ don’t solve the issue. From an academic standpoint, which is more important: chemistry or biology? Me, neither.)

I suspect that, over the long term, the answer will be to abandon the idea of the “comprehensive” community college, in favor of a statewide system of community colleges with different strengths. (Boutique majors could be hosted at particular campuses, with online sections open to students across the entire state.) But that’s the kind of strategic decision best made deliberately, with forethought, broad discussion, and statewide buy-in. It’s not the kind of thing to decide on the fly, unilaterally, at one college. (“Okay, you guys in the next county over can take over nursing; we just want the chalk-and-talk majors. That work for you?” Uh-huh.) And we can’t base long-term strategic decisions on who happens to decide to retire next semester. (Even if we tried, retirements have a frustrating habit of happening in the wrong places, or happening all-of-a-sudden, or, in some departments, not happening at all for decades at a time.)

At some point, I think we’ll have to make a choice between doing a whole lot of things not-so-well or a few things well. I’d vote for the latter; others may disagree. But this isn’t the moment to make that call.

(Back in 2000, when The Wife and I were house-hunting, I briefly worked with one realtor who wanted me to carry around a cell phone at all times, because anything that came on the market in that town would go within an hour. I stopped working with him; there was no way that we would make that kind of decision in that kind of time.)

The frustrating likely outcome is that we’ll split the difference, meaning that some weak areas will continue to wither and some strong areas will get little more than a hearty handshake. Departments will dig in their heels, turf battles will escalate, accusations will fly, the state will continue to send contradictory signals, and the muddling-through will get just a little harder each year.


If it were easy, anybody could do it…