Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Book Waiting to be Written

If not for my day job, I'd take a crack at writing a book with the following topic:

How to Steer a College Through a Recession and Make It Stronger

Okay, it's not as catchy as it could be. Maybe something like Lindsay Lohan's Illustrated Weight Loss Secrets and How Colleges Can Navigate Recessions. Admittedly, it's a bit clunky, but at least it would sell. Or maybe Walk it Off, Loser! A No-Nonsense Guide to Colleges' Sucking It Up, to capture the Regnery Press demographic.

Whatever the title, there's a book waiting to be written about higher ed and funding cycles.

Over the break, I had a chance to connect with Grad School Friend who has since left the academy and is now developing a remarkable project for a wildly successful company you've heard of. (Hint: it rhymes with Schmoogle.) As we caught up and I regaled him with stories of the repeated, and accelerating, cycles of cuts with which I'm dealing, he mentioned that it seemed like in bad years, higher ed gets killed, and in good years, it only treads water. It never actually gains.

While there are exceptions here and there, it struck me as essentially accurate. The cycle is decline-plateau-decline-plateau-decline, with the plateaus getting progressively shorter. With each 'recovery,' only a fraction of the previous decline's loss is restored, and then another (and worse) decline starts.

(To see the objective truth of this, just look at the data on adjunct percentages in higher ed over the last thirty years. This isn't just me.)

The macro story is familiar and well-documented. And the story about adjuncts has been pretty well told, even if to remarkably little effect. But the story of how to actually manage from within – of actual improvements generated internally despite what amounts to a nasty fiscal headwind – remains largely unwritten.

That may be because it's fiction, but I choose not to believe that. Even when the external trends are vicious and unrelenting, they can be handled well or badly.

In the absence of a serious, systematic look at handling funding cuts, a sort of unofficial playbook has developed. You go after the softest stuff first – travel funding, professional development, food, a few ceremonies. When that falls short, which it always does, you look at tuition increases, program fees, early retirements, shrinkage-by-attrition (that is, more adjuncts), consolidating administrative positions, larger class sizes, and skimping on physical plant to the extent that you have the option. (That's usually much less helpful than many people think, since capital funding isn't interchangeable with operating funding.) If that still isn't enough, then you go to layoffs and program eliminations.

There's a certain short-term logic to that playbook, and I was struck at a recent statewide meeting of my counterparts at how uniform it is across institutions. Even without consulting with each other, we all pretty much have the same set of moves, and in pretty much the same order. It's essentially a move from 'least resistance' to 'next least' to 'next least' and so on. And that's true regardless of personal inclination, political ideology, or local institutional culture. The gravitational pull of structural imperatives simply overpowers everything else.

I've been thinking a lot about the car companies, and about to what degree they foreshadow the fate of higher ed. Their breathtakingly stubborn refusal to contemplate the long term has caught up with them, leaving even the relatively more thoughtful ones unable to contemplate much more than short-term survival.

Luckily, the comparison is imperfect in many ways. Most obviously, there's no clear Toyota or Honda in higher ed. Yes, the proprietaries are out there, and some of them have some momentum, but even after some pretty impressive increases they remain a relatively small piece of the picture. Education is harder to import than cars are, particularly for those who prefer education in a face-to-face style. The demand for higher education remains as high as it has ever been. In direct contrast to the car companies, our 'sales' actually improve during recessions, since they reduce the opportunity cost of time. (Put differently: if you can't find work anyway, what better use of your time than improving your credentials?) And with the heavy reliance on adjuncts, we certainly can't be accused of indifference to labor costs.

Still, it's hard to think long-term thoughts on an accelerating treadmill. That's the commonality.

I don't usually address philanthropists quite so blatantly, but desperate times, desperate measures, and all that. What we really need is some philanthropist to sponsor a comparative study on intelligent ways of handling ever-more-restrictive budgets. Pay some carefully-chosen people (hi!) to go around the country looking at different public colleges and how they've responded to periodic shortfalls. Gather the best practices, publicize them (preferably with a catchy title), and host discussions on how to improve even on those. In other words, get some folks who are in positions to understand off the treadmill, and give them the resources to take serious stock.

I'm concerned that the alternative to that, or something akin to it, is continued reliance on the same old short-term playbook. And I just don't like where that leads.