Monday, August 07, 2017

This Is What We Call a “Red Flag”

[R]ather than being asked to change their ways, full-time faculty members are simply phased out over time.
This sentence passed virtually unnoticed about a third of the way through an IHE story about a survey it had done of college and university financial officers.  To me, it jumped off the screen.

The finance officers addressed a number of strategies for preserving their institutions in light of financial and enrollment pressures.  They range from the unobjectionable -- energy efficiency, economies of scale in certain back-office functions -- to the conspicuous, like mergers and campus closures.  They named a number of constituencies from which they solicit input, including trustees, senior administrators, and the community.

But they’re starting to give up on faculty.  Having heard nothing useful but plenty of condemnation from that quarter, they’re isolating it and essentially consigning it to hospice.  

That’s instrumentally rational and substantively shocking.  

As a short-term move, I can see the reasoning.  Full-time faculty are expensive and specialized.  Their input on financial decisions is often reflective of only getting one part of the picture, and can be vitriolic.  After a while, it becomes easier just to appease the incumbents and let attrition do the dirty work.  After all, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge a tenured professor, but easy not to replace one who leaves.  Over time, the incumbents will gradually become less relevant.

Over time, of course, there’s a real concern about academic quality.  But for most finance officers, that registers as relatively abstract.  In the battle between this year’s deficit, which is very real, and yet another round of “the sky is falling!” from the usual suspects, I can see the temptation to focus on the problem that’s actually solvable.  

From an academic perspective, the solution seems obvious.  If we care about maintaining the full-time faculty role in any significant numbers, full-time faculty need to get involved in discussions of the business model.  That’s different from protesting to bring back a golden age, or just screaming at trustees.  It means engaging seriously with the long-term drivers of cost and revenue, and applying those critical thinking skills to find solutions.  It means being willing to entertain the possibility of doing things differently.

That’s not just wishful thinking; it has been done.  The Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County -- acknowledged nationally as a breakthrough in improving success rates for students who placed into remediation -- reconceives the instructor’s role in a way that improves student completion rates.  It was developed by faculty in the English department.  The Z-degree -- an all-OER degree with zero textbook cost -- at Tidewater Community College was a faculty initiative.  Odessa College went to short semesters to survive, and discovered that student success rates improved for every subgroup of students, and at minimal cost.  The faculty took a leading role.

There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit for interested faculty to examine.  They’re in a unique position to look at the merits of different forms of scheduling, different methods of advising, and new sorts of “nudges” to help students stay on task.  (My son’s high school gives every teacher access to a group texting app with which they remind students of upcoming exams or paper due dates.  I’ve actually heard TB exclaim, upon reading a text, “Oh, @#$#, I have to study!”)  They’re on the front lines with students, seeing and hearing when systems break down.  Many have experience in different types of institutions, with different business models.  And as a group, they’re awfully smart.  I hate to leave all that intelligence untapped.

Some may take being ignored as a short-term win; it means they can do what they’ve always done, relatively undisturbed.  But it’s a truism in business that you know you’re in trouble when people stop asking what you think.  Once you’ve been consigned to irrelevance, it’s a long way back.  Even worse, some seem to relish the irrelevance, calculating that they can run out the clock before everything collapses.  

The fact that many college finance officers admit moving from “engagement” to “containment” is a gigantic red flag for faculty.  I hope they don’t miss it.