Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Mandates Attack

“But we didn’t mean that!”

Broad-brush rules have a way of generating unintended, and even unsupportable, consequences.  Most of us know that intuitively when we talk about things like mandatory minimum sentencing, “zero tolerance” policies, or tax loopholes.

The same applies to colleges.

Apparently, California -- I almost feel bad for still picking on it, but sheesh -- has a rule that no more than 50 percent of a college’s budget can be used for “non-instructional” expenses.  When combined with a catastrophic budget crunch, that means that colleges can’t hire nearly enough academic advisors to keep up with student demand.  Advisors count as “non-instructional,” so hiring a new advisor requires hiring a new professor.  If you can’t afford both, you can’t hire the advisor.  So now certain community colleges there have over a thousand students per advisor.

This should have been predictable.  

Non-instructional costs can include everything from IT and software -- a huge and growing category -- to physical plant, IR staff, financial aid staff, utility costs, library staff and databases, and, yes, administration.  Many of these are far more expensive than they were ten years ago, and through nobody’s fault.  IT expectations on campus are far beyond what they were ten years ago, both for online courses and for onsite instruction and operations.  Gainful employment regs all by themselves require significant staff time, entirely uncompensated by the folks who passed the regs.

When the mandatory -- or effectively mandatory -- expenses grow, and the funding shrinks, the discretionary stuff takes a hit.  In California’s case, that means academic advising.

At the root of broad-stroke mandates like the 50 percent rule is distrust of what would happen without the rule.  In the absence of mandatory minimum sentencing, the argument goes, liberal judges will let criminals run free.  Therefore, the judges must be made iirrelevant.  In the absence of zero tolerance policies on drugs, students will shoot up in the hallways; better to force principals to crack down, even if it means giving a kid detention for a Tylenol.  And in the absence of a hard budget line, academic administrators will obviously turn California into Vermont -- an all-adjunct faculty -- so they must be stopped.

But tying the hands of the people closer to the situation is not a serious answer.  It gives rise to all manner of distortions, simply because they’re prevented from doing what needs to be done.

It’s pretty clear at this point that innovation is the only serious answer.  And innovation requires room to move.  Managers need to be free to manage, and to experiment.  They need their hands untied.

“Aha!”  I hear the collective blogosphere exclaim.  “This is an administrative power grab, carried out under cover of emergency!”  Well, discretion can be misused.  As can hard rules.  The core of the issue, in my mind, is “as opposed to what?”  The status quo is clearly an outsized failure.  The California death spiral, it seems to me, is beyond denial at this point.  So we can make room to try different things -- some of which might actually work -- or we can just brace for impact.  

The rule has to go.  Administrations have to be free to try to save their colleges from the death spiral.  Some will act wisely, some will not; some will succeed, some will not.  But I’d rather take my chance on the discretion of local, invested people who actually understand the issues than die by a broad-stroke rule passed by people who know not what they do.