Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cutting Your Way to Greatness

Has cutting your way to greatness ever worked?

I can’t think of a time that it has, yet it remains a common default mode.  

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting.  Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments.  Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts.  Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting.  Add an inexorably rising underlying cost -- say, just hypothetically, health insurance -- and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense.  It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal.  

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening.  That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future.  And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control.  Already, that’s a tallish order.

Assuming the requisite pattern recognition and emotional maturity, though, there’s the pesky second step of actually knowing how to interrupt the pattern.  That’s where a generational divide in leadership can be really glaring.

Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth.  Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.  

That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.  But folks who came up when that was the standard playbook can find themselves flummoxed when the old standbys don’t work anymore.

Internally, on campus, the same can be true in reverse.  Habits formed when higher education was a seller’s market don’t work now that it’s a buyer’s market, but letting go of those habits can be difficult, especially when they’ve come to be understood as the core of a professional identity.  Denial is easier, until it abruptly isn’t.

When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.  The old “more of everything” strategy is bankrupt, but “less of everything” isn’t any smarter.  

The task for the emerging generation of leadership isn’t just fiscal; it’s narrative.  We need to start telling stories that make sense of the world as it exists now.  Film is dead, but photography has never been more popular; those who couldn’t make the distinction came to grief.  Established business models are straining, but education is more important than ever; those who only understand one or the other of those will do great damage.  

We will not cut our way to greatness.  Nor will we build our way there.  We’ll have to work with what we actually can control in ways that previous generations didn’t.  That means some changes to long-established ways of doing things, some of which have taken on the aura of naturalness over time.  So be it.  Education matters too much to let it keep circling the drain.