Friday, December 18, 2009

Chestnuts, Roasting in an Open Blog...

A new correspondent writes:

I'm in the market for for an administrative position in higher ed, and as I've been interviewing, I've noticed two distinct approaches to budget cuts. The first is an across-the-board cut: all departments (or employees or some other variation on this theme) get a 5% cut. The second is to pare underperforming departments and to spare the remaining ones any significant cuts. Any general thoughts?

I could have sworn I had done a piece on this old chestnut, but a quick search didn't reveal one. That's okay; it's worth revisiting anyway.

First, good luck walking into any new administrative role in which your first job is to make cuts. That's a hell of a first impression to make on a new campus. Although people should know better, and they do at some level, there will still be real political damage done. Think of it as skipping the honeymoon and getting straight to the arguments about money. You may be able to recoup some of the losses later when the budgets bounce back, but it's still a rough way to start.

That said, you play the hand you're dealt. Given the need to cut, which way to go?

The advantage to the across-the-board method is that it's quick and relatively easy. It doesn't require much specific local knowledge, which makes it especially appealing for a newcomer. It's unlikely to cause imminent disaster. It reduces the political infighting, at least in the short term, and it's easier to reverse when/if things rebound.

The disadvantage is that it doesn't do anything to improve the long-term strength of the college. When you cut the most productive programs as much as the least, you send a powerful message that productivity doesn't matter. Worse, you actually wind up rewarding waste, since the areas with histories of frugality have to cut bone, while the areas with histories of boondoggle can get away with trimming fat. Over the years, folks will figure that out, and your budget will get lumpy as people squirrel away resources in bizarre places so they'll know what to cut first when the next inevitable crisis hits. I've actually seen this. To add insult to injury, your best people will start leaving, since they'll sense futility on the home front, and your worst people will dig in and get incredibly defensive and bitter. Repeat the cycle a few times, and you wind up with a badly poisoned well.

It's a defensible response to an obviously short-term crisis, but it doesn't work well over time.

The actually-make-choices approach is much riskier in the short term, and it carries a higher risk of imminent disaster. But if you get it right, it opens the possibility of actually strengthening the college over time. Getting it right would involve the standard moves -- the SWOT analysis, environmental scan, etc. -- but also a serious and sustained public conversation with the college as a whole. When push comes to shove, what does your college really care about? (This could be a very tricky exercise for a newcomer, but if you can pull it off, you'll really achieve something.) Will future success require emphasizing a different set of programs, or doubling down on the existing core? What does your college offer that its relevant competitors don't? Is athletics the route to prosperity, a necessary part of local culture, or an afterthought? (Depending on context, it could be any of those.) Are there some historical holdovers, programs that were created in different times that just never quite worked?

The key thing here is that it isn't just about finding the right answer. It's about getting the college to find it with you. Involving more people in the process leading up to the decision will take time and patience, and you'll have to endure some not-very-much-fun moments. But if it works, you'll wind up with a better answer, and with one that might actually stick. You'll minimize the political backlash, and improve the chances of keeping your best people. It costs more time and effort upfront, but for a long-term crisis, it's the way to go.

One admin's opinion, anyway. Good luck on your search!

Wise and worldly readers, what advice would you give?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.