Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Business or Town?

Tenured Radical’s thoughtful post on elite presidential salaries got me thinking about the “run the college like a business” canard.

Most of the people who use that phrase, whether approvingly or damningly, haven’t personally worked in a college that was actually a business. I have -- you’ve heard of it -- and I can report confidently that it’s the wrong metaphor for the community colleges I know.

Having been in all three settings, I’m convinced that community college administration is much closer to town or municipal government than it is to for-profit business. If the place were run like a business, you’d know it.

Like a town, a community college has members with wildly disparate agendas and preferences. It has a myriad of missions, but no distinct bottom line. It has people who stick around forever, and people who are just passing through. It has multiple and conflicting power centers, some more powerful than others, and the most effective leaders are the ones who can get the various centers to work with each other towards common goals. It has some basics that need tending -- keeping the lights on, say -- but tremendous disagreement over priorities and resource allocation beyond that.

When the college has both tenure and unions, the likeness is that much stronger. A city manager can’t get rid of her most annoying constituents, and a dean can’t get rid of her most annoying faculty. If anything, the constituents tend to outlast the officeholders. There’s a certain line of authority, but the officeholder takes that literally at her own peril. Instead, the effective officeholders use their positions to help people achieve their various agendas, within the limits of multiple layers of law, chronically limited resources, and the realities of personalities.

As in politics, diplomacy matters here. The peremptory “my way or the highway” style that can work in certain business environments -- not all, certainly, but some -- tends to crash and burn here. People have long memories and thin skins; getting the climate to the point where discussions can be productive requires acknowledging both without getting paralyzed.

It’s easy to snark about municipal government -- and people do -- but the difference between a well-run city and a poorly-run one is dramatic. You notice it in any number of ways, from the efficacy of official channels in solving problems to the presence or absence of graft. There isn’t much glory in municipal management, but when it’s done right, things work. The trash gets picked up, the snow plowed, and the bills paid. When those things are done, citizens can focus on other things and use their creativity productively.

If you try to run a city like a business, you’ll run into the basic contradictions pretty quickly. The same is true here. Yes, community colleges as a group have to be cost-conscious and budget-conscious, as to most cities and towns, but that’s not the same as running like a business. Businesses spend freely -- and without regard to “equality” -- to make even more. While most municipalities and most colleges would certainly welcome more money, and certainly pay attention to costs, making money isn’t the point.

Proprietary U was a business, and the differences were stark. Turnover was rapid, enrollment fluctuations were dramatic, and the academic calendar ran twelve months per year. Programs that didn’t cover their costs got eliminated. The idea of programmatic cross-subsidization, which is simply considered normal here, was verboten there. Making money was exactly the point.

The difference in metaphors matters, I think, because using the wrong metaphors leads to misunderstandings that generate unnecessary and unhelpful conflict. The best deans aren’t ruthless profit-maximizers, and they wouldn’t last long if they were; they’re local diplomats who balance all manner of conflicting pressures. The ones who can do that without forgetting the point of it all are valuable, even if inconspicuous. The good ones run colleges like the small cities that they are.