Monday, May 04, 2009

Zombie Hunting

The popular press has been filled lately with references to zombie banks or zombie corporations, undead entities kept on life support for extra-economic reasons. Last week, IHE had a similar story about academic programs, and the difficulty in putting the final stake into zombie programs.

I took a first stab at this – no pun intended – several years ago. Several years later, in yet another funding crisis, it seems timely to revisit the question. What to do about zombie programs?

Killing them off is far harder, and often far less lucrative, than one might imagine. It isn't as simple as taking the overall instructional budget for the college, dividing it by the number of programs, and basing a kill quota on the current shortfall divided by the result. Even if you could get away with that internally – a belly-laugh counterfactual in its own right – it wouldn't work economically.

Most academic programs – especially at the two-year level – are comprised of courses from lots of different departments. Engineering majors take English 101, for example, and Art majors take math. To calculate the revenue impact of any given program, you have to account for that. (This also adds to the political difficulty, since even small programs have effective allies.) The converse is also true – most departments serve multiple programs. That's the bread and butter of Gen Ed departments like English and math, but it's also true in less obvious corners. In practice, that means that eliminating small programs might not involve any terminations, which means that any savings would be negligible.

There's also the matter of tenure. Depending on local conditions, tenure may be with a department or program, or it may be with the college. If it's with the college, then you're obligated to re-deploy any affected personnel to anything else they're qualified to do. (In some cases, you're even on the hook to pay to retrain them first.) In departments with multiple programs, someone whose pet program gets cut can usually find a full workload in another program. This usually eliminates any significant cost savings, making it cheaper just to tolerate the zombie.

Say that you're aware of those issues, but want to move forward anyway. You'll immediately hit the issues of criteria, process, and internal politics.

Simply put, there's no such thing as unobjectionable criteria. Some criteria strike me as more reasonable than others – enrollments, cost per student, placement or transfer rates, and graduation rates seem like decent first-round indicators – but as soon as you apply these to actual cases, the arguments for exceptions kick in. “The only reason this program is small is that it's underfunded – we need more money, not less!” “But this is the only program of its kind in the [state/region/country]!” “But this is an inherent component of Excellence and Virtue and Truth and Beauty, you Philistine!” “But this industry is cyclical, and when it comes back, you won't be able to regroup in time!” The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Then the in-house lawyers – you know the kind – will nitpick you to death on method. These are the folks who live to point out what they call 'irregularities,' and who love to invoke 'neutrality' as if it existed. When called to give a single, solitary example, in my experience, they change the subject. Their preferred solution is typically to conjure up more money from the magic money tree they imagine exists somewhere in the government, to make all conflicts go away. Although it's impossible to take these folks seriously on their own merits, they must be taken seriously as political headaches.

But suppose that you're absolutely superhuman at building consensus around methods and process. What would happen then?

Quick quiz: what would you expect to happen when governance is shared, and the question at hand could result in some of the people with whom it's shared losing their jobs?

Exactly. The conflict of interest is staggering.

The tragic flaw in most shared governance arrangements is that they exist in a resource vacuum, but the most important decisions almost always involve resource allocation. (This is why I'm not a fan of Hannah Arendt. Her separation of 'the political' from 'the economic' strikes me as starving 'the political' of content.) In the abstract, almost all academic programs have at least some value. The question of comparative value in a context of limited resources is altogether different. But 'program reviews' don't address that, and program self-studies are almost never suicide notes.

Short of declaring fiscal exigency and basically starting a fire to clear out the underbrush, the only way I can see to cull a significant number of programs is to move the decision to an entirely separate process, consisting mostly of people from off-campus. On campus, the conflicts of interest are just too deep. And that's not a criticism of any single campus or person; the issue is structural. The solution needs to be structural, too.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a successful, relatively uncontroversial, sustainable model of making program-elimination decisions that actually eliminates programs? Is there actually a way to rid the world of zombies?