Monday, January 08, 2018

A Different Kind of Difficult Conversation: A Challenge to the AACC

I read IHE’s account of the recent meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges with a bit of jealousy.  The CIC, which represents private colleges, has started sponsoring discussions of realistic ways to deal with persistent financial issues.

For community and state colleges, it would be much harder to have that conversation.  

Some of the issues are the same: denial, blame-dodging, fear of damage to reputation.  There’s also a bit of what lawyers call the “principal/agent” problem, in which the interests of managers and the interests of the institutions they manage can diverge.  For example, it may be the right thing to do for a given college to close a location, but nobody wants to be the president who closed a location.

But we have constraints that the independent colleges mostly don’t.

Internally, for instance, many public colleges (including my own) are unionized. Collective bargaining agreements, and sometimes state laws, can greatly narrow the strike zone for any prospective downsizing.  When you have to do layoffs by seniority, and your salaries are mostly determined by seniority, the most expensive employees are the most protected.  That makes the math harder.

Externally, public colleges have to answer to governments that provide appropriations.  That may be a county or counties, a state, or a district, but in any event it means answering to people who have other priorities.  Private colleges have Boards that are responsible for only them.  We have Boards, but we also have legislators and local politicians to answer to, and they have their own agendas. (They’re often acutely conscious of how a given decision might look if it were portrayed negatively in the press, for obvious reasons.) On campus, we might be focused on, say, twenty years of flat funding from the state, but the elected leaders aren’t focused on that; they’re focused on the next campaign.

In a political setting, it’s much easier to water down every bottle in the cabinet than to throw out a bottle or two.  That’s because voters often have limited attention, so they’ll only notice if bottles get thrown out.  Closing a location alarms voters in a way that, say, increasing the adjunct percentage yet again doesn’t.

In states with both local and state funding, the issues are compounded by rivalries and, sometimes, party splits.  And America being America, geographic boundaries also often coincide with clustering by race and class, which can make conflict even stickier.

I’d love to see the AACC host some serious conversations about what colleges faced with declining demographics, strong unions, and flat funding can do. What has worked elsewhere?  What are the seemingly low-hanging fruit that actually turn out to be traps?  What looks harder than it actually is?

When we hear about “difficult campus conversations,” they’re usually about race, class, or gender.  Those matter quite a bit -- good luck explaining contemporary American politics without looking at race, for instance -- but at least we’re starting to make headway on them.  We haven’t started to make much headway on questions of institutional resilience.  We should.

AACC, the gauntlet is thrown.  Your move.