Monday, August 20, 2007

Creeping Incrementalism

Over at Bardiac's, there's a thoughtful post on the frustrations of dealing with an administration that makes every class section just a little bit bigger every year. It brought back memories.

At Proprietary U, as the tech boom crested, there were students crawling out of the woodwork. It was a constant struggle to find places for them all, especially given their work schedules and lab constraints. The class schedule was built on a 'cohort' model, but students came in with so many (and so varied) transfer credits that the cohorts blew apart upon arrival. So no matter how much we planned, there would always be a few bottlenecks in the schedule. Given limited time and faculty, sometimes the only way to get them in was to raise course caps. Over time, course caps originally understood to be 'exceptional' became the new 'normal,' allowing the new 'exceptional' to be just a little higher. The cycle repeated a few times before the tech boom crashed and 'too many' students quickly became 'too few.'

From an administrative perspective, this is a very easy mistake to make. Enrollments are never constant, and even if the totals are fairly stable, the distributions aren't. So there are always some anomalies, and you just have to accept that as a cost of doing business. (At my cc, for example, there was an abrupt and very brief burst of interest in a very off-the-beaten-path foreign language a couple of years ago. After a year, the demand settled back to its usual level. I suspect sunspots.) At any given moment, it can be hard to tell if a given bottleneck is the result of an anomaly, or a fundamental and sustainable change. In the absence of good information, it's easier and cheaper (in the very short run) to treat it as an exception, and to cobble together cheap work-arounds.

The problem is that switching from a cheap work-around to a serious solution – that is, going from stuffing a few more students into each class and maybe adding an adjunct to actually making a full-time hire – is abruptly expensive. The need can creep up on you, but the cost hits you all at once. And if you hire a full-timer and turn out to have guessed wrong, you're in budgetary hell for a long, long time. So at any given moment, the temptation to wait for greater clarity – that is, to wait for the problem to solve itself somehow – can be great.

Compound that with larger statewide budget cuts, as is apparently the case in Bardiac's neck of the woods, and the burden of proof for a new full-time hire is that much worse. (Add tenure, which prevents you from cutting full-time faculty in areas with low enrollments, and you have to be just that much more parsimonious everywhere else to make up for it.)

In that kind of situation, the administrative challenge is especially nasty. You need enrollments to keep the college financially viable, but you don't really have the space or staff to handle them. (If you hired, you'd defeat the goal of financial viability.) You'd like to be able to promise anybody who helps you out a quick return to normalcy, but that's contingent on external factors beyond your control. If the situation has been going on for a while, chances are that some folks have already been burned by doing favors, and the “tough budget year” mantra has been spoken enough times that it has lost all credibility.

This is where I differ somewhat from Bardiac's recommendation. She asks for an administrative mea culpa. I understand the temptation, but it wouldn't be true. Is it my fault the state is running a deficit? Is it my fault that previous administrations hired badly, or that student demand fluctuates, or that the cost of health insurance is rising faster than just about anything else, or that some classes have lab constraints and some don't? Besides, in some environments, volunteering to take blame is a textbook way to get fired.

My move in this case – and I'll admit that it requires a certain kind of environment to work – would be (has been) to put it all on the table. If I just blame the faculty for being selfish, nothing good happens. If they just blame me for not magically pulling wads of cash out of my ass, nothing good happens, either. If we all come to grips with what is actually happening, then there's at least a chance of developing a healthier approach. Some folks will simply deny reality or retreat into indignant-narcissistic-accusatory mode, but many will respond to respect with respect.

In my perfect world, that kind of conversation would lead to strategic, rather than incremental, choices. If the downward fiscal trend looks likely to continue, then continuing the patch-here-band-aid-there approach is nuts.

My guess is that the administration that resorts to the death of a thousand cuts is trying to avoid what would inevitably be a tense, emotionally-charged confrontation. That's understandable on a human level, and certainly wise when the challenges at hand are temporary. But when it becomes clear that the challenges aren't going to go away anytime soon, there's a basic choice to be made: either water down everything you do, or do fewer things. The longer you put off that choice, the more you find yourself backing into the former. It sounds like Bardiac's administration is trying to make its problem the faculty's problem. I understand the temptation, but it's a terrible move.