Monday, March 07, 2011

Nobody Calls

In a recent discussion with a very highly-placed political figure, I heard something disturbing. We were talking about the series of cuts that public higher ed has taken over the last few years, and why it seems like the legislature keeps coming back for more. He mentioned that he has had some candid discussions with legislators, and this is what they told him:

When they cut budgets for police, the phones ring off the hook. When they cut budgets for fire departments, the phones ring. When they cut budgets for K-12, the phones ring. But when they cut public higher ed, nobody calls. (Naturally, when they raise taxes, the phones never stop ringing.)

It bothered me because it rang true (no pun intended).

It's disturbing on a number of levels. Most basically, it suggests that public higher ed will be at a consistent disadvantage, relative to other parts of the state budget, for the foreseeable future. It's hard to argue that we don't need police or elementary schools, and neither of those has significant alternative revenue sources. (Yes, some towns raise entirely too much via speeding tickets, but the basic point still stands.) Colleges and universities do. From the perspective of a legislator trying to cut spending somewhere, higher ed is a relatively easy target.

(To his credit, and correctly, he also noted that the real budget-buster is health care. The rate of cost increases for health insurance is so catastrophic that over the long term, almost nothing else matters. Since Obama blew his chance at a rational single-payer system, I foresee serious financial hurt for the rest of the public sector in the coming decade, even after the economy recovers.)

Why doesn't anybody call?

Yes, some of the unions do, but I'm talking about the public at large. (I don’t live or work in Wisconsin, so we don’t have the mixed blessing of a governor feeding us red meat.)

Part of it, I think, is the delicate balance of people in a reputational business. You don't want to come out and say “after all these years of cuts, the college simply sucks now.” That pretty much invites campus closure, even if that's the opposite of the intent. Once word gets out that a college is circling the drain, enrollments crater, public support vanishes, the best staff start to leave, and the death spiral accelerates. Yet you don't want to be too blithe, either. If you put a happy face forward no matter what happens, you make the path of least resistance entirely too obvious. If cuts don't hurt, and the state needs cuts, then what do you think will happen?

Since higher ed leaders can't give candid accounts of the damage already done, and are too smart to pretend that nothing is wrong, they fall back (by default) on warnings of future harm. “We're still good, but further cuts will erode...” That way they can protest the bad stuff without inadvertently jeopardizing their own viability as a student and staff destination.

But after years of that, the public has grown jaded. We've had warnings of imminent apocalypse for decades, yet it never seems to happen. The damage manifests gradually, with enough lag to make it difficult for casual observers to connect the dots. (Those of us in the trenches see it, but most people's attention is otherwise engaged.) Since reputations are both imperfect and lagging indicators, it can take many years for real damage to alter public perceptions. By then, you’re too far gone to rebuild easily, and enough other things have happened that it’s difficult to pin the blame cleanly on any one thing.

After so many years of cuts, college leaders start to sound like the boy who cried ‘wolf.’ In this case, the wolf is real, which just makes matters worse.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a realistic and practical way to get the phones ringing?