Friday, May 15, 2009

Cuts and Morale

Yesterday's IHE had an article about faculty and staff morale during budget cuts. It's worth reading, but the comments are even more so.  They're a pretty good microcosm of what can happen in the absence of trust.

Longtime faculty and staff have been through previous rounds of fiscal crisis, so there's a sense in which some of them know the usual drill.  This time is different, though, both for its depth and for its uncertainty.  When you combine rapidly-plummeting tax receipts at the state level with a Federal stimulus that's sort of being made up on the fly, it's harder than usual to get your bearings.  Fear plus uncertainty can equal low morale.

The comments to the article reflect some schadenfreude, some class hostility (both ways), and some poorly thought out comparisons to the corporate world.  Most of those largely miss the point.

Education is a creative enterprise.  As Jeff Angus likes to say, for us, the talent is the product.  In this kind of setting, the job of management is to set the conditions in which creative workers can do their best work, given obvious resource constraints.  (And yes, part of the job involves finding new resources.)  When times are flush, that means fostering good growth.  When times are tight, or declining, that means affirming the value of the people there even while doing the necessary triage.  

I've been struck on my campus by the degree to which morale has held up.  There's some grumbling, but the odd virtue of the Great Recession is that it's so big and obvious that nobody can credibly claim that budget cuts are merely the fault (or whim) of local management.  In fact, it's given us an admittedly perverse opportunity to show that we're all in this together.  

To the extent that we've been able to cushion morale from the kind of blows it could have taken, some of the measures have included:

- unprecedented openness with faculty and staff about priorities, processes, and the vagaries of the state budget.  Annoyingly, some of the openness has included saying "we don't know," because so much of the external picture is in such flux.  But it has the virtue of being true, and telling the truth at least shows respect (even when it's not the truth you would have preferred). In terms of venues, we've had all-campus meetings, online discussions, multiple committees, and repeated and sustained opportunities for people to contribute ideas.  The good news is twofold: people from all corners of the college have come up with useful ideas, and they have appreciated being asked and listened to.

- avoiding (most of) the stupid little symbolic cuts that generate more anger than savings.  We haven't cut chalk, or paper, or photocopying allowances.  I've lived through that elsewhere, and it doesn't really help.  People often develop even costlier work-arounds, and the ill will generated far outlasts the moment.  Some things are just costs of doing business.  I'd rather cut one program entirely than starve every program of the basics that it needs to teach students.

- management pay freezes.  We're not getting raises until everybody does.  To follow 'cries of poverty' and 'tuition increases' with 'management pay raises' leaves a bad taste.  Besides, at a really basic level, fair is fair.  The credibility gain is well worth a couple percent.

The common denominator to all of these is a conscious effort to show respect. Gratifyingly, I'm seeing signs of it being reciprocated.  Telling the truth and sharing sacrifice are both signs of respect.  Listening is a sign of respect. Admitting in public when you're wrong is a sign of respect. These don't substitute for large infusions of cash, but they certainly help us weather the storm without turning on each other.  The faculty here is starting to trust that this time, nobody is crying wolf.  And nobody is using the crisis as an excuse to further some sinister agenda.  

Honestly, I have to thank my wise and worldly readers for having spent the last few years helping me get prepared for this.  The oft-repeated comments calling for inclusion and transparency finally started to sink in, and I'm finally able to do something with them on the ground.  Thank you for that.

Of course, if the economy would decide to stabilize, that would help, too.  But until then, we do what we can do.