He called it a “tone-setting letter,” and it certainly fit the bill.
In a November missive to the presidents of 45 institutions in the Tennessee Board of Regents system, Chancellor Charles Manning suggested that the current economic crisis required a “new business model.” In the memo, Manning laid out a series of potential changes, including the possibility of letting advanced students teach beginners, and tuition discounts for students who agree to work online “with no direct support from a faculty member” except for grading.
“My regret is that it was taken in the context of ‘this is something we’re going to do and shove down your throat,’ ” Manning told Inside Higher Ed late last month. “It really was a set of ideas.”
The backlash from the Manning memo is illustrative of the potential perils of pushing for transformative change on the accelerated timelines that a faltering economy may well demand. In the rush to make hard decisions that have been put off for years or decades, higher education leaders risk losing the very support they’ll need to get just about anything done. If history is any indicator, consensus building matters, and matters greatly.
Manning clearly tried to guard against appearing to act unilaterally, noting in his memo that his aim was “to provide a beginning point with thought-provoking ideas, not to set forth a definitive, prescriptive list.” But the suggestions felt prescriptive to many, and ideas like creating a system with “even greater use of adjuncts” were quickly dismissed as cost-cutting measures that would ultimately deteriorate quality. As might be expected, valuable constituencies grew adversarial.
Faculty balked, with one calling the plan a hasty and “radical attack” on professors.
Regents balked back, condemning critics as “irresponsible individuals.”
And students protested -- or at least got really angry on Facebook.
Lessons Learned in Maine
Manning’s struggles have echoes of a not-so-distant controversy in Maine, where former chancellor Joseph Westphal was criticized for not
seeking input on a bold plan that would reorganize the seven-campus University of Maine System. The 2004 plan, which would have merged universities, was met with significant opposition, and Westphal -- a former Pentagon official -- resigned in 2006.
“There were parts of the Westphal plan that made a lot of sense, but the way he went about it … it was doomed from the beginning,” said Jim Bradley, president of the Associated COLT Staff of the Universities of Maine, a union that represents about 1,000 employees.
Westphal’s experience appears to have been instructive to his successor, Chancellor Richard Pattenaude. Pattenaude, former president of the University of Southern Maine, is pushing for “transformational change” in the system -- but he’s been very careful not to detail exactly what that means. Instead, he issued a 16-page report earlier this month that emphasizes broad themes dubbed “arenas of action.” Pattenaude expects state appropriations to be cut or remain flat for the next four years, and he’s proposed a $42.8 million reduction in that time frame to deal with the challenge.
But Pattenaude is leaving it to a 12-person task force to produce specific cost-cutting proposals in areas as diverse as financial services, academic programs and governance. While Pattenaude laid out cost saving goals -- at least $8 million in savings in academic programs, for instance -- he avoided much discussion about how that should be done.
The task force has broad composition, including trustees, faculty, a university president, union representatives, a student and members of the business community.
Pattenaude declined to be interviewed for this story, which may be yet another indication of how gingerly he’s approaching politically sensitive changes. He is meeting with groups on all seven of Maine’s campuses, and said through a spokesman that he didn’t want to discuss the plan further in the news media before completing the rounds. Pattenaude did, however, e-mail a statement about his general philosophy.
“We committed ourselves to an open, flexible, and transparent process,” the statement said. “We are meeting with all stakeholders, bringing to the table the relevant questions, not pre-determined answers. There is great wisdom and insight among the people of our universities. Those individuals who are closest to the work often have better insight into effective ways to develop change. We need to tap that. Those perspectives and ideas need to be blended with a broader, strategic view as well as recognition of the state and national context in which we exist. We are putting our faith in an inclusive process, one in which informed, knowledgeable people will come to good conclusions about the actions needed to achieve our objectives.”
It’s easy to dismiss Pattenaude’s comments as the familiar rhetoric of inclusion, and how the process will ultimately play out remains to be seen. After all, the difficult choices haven't been made yet. But Pattenaude is winning over important supporters thus far, including unions. Bradley, who will serve on the task force, is talking like a believer.
“It makes a big difference if you involve stake holders from the beginning,” he said. “And (not doing) that was Westphal’s mistake; it really was.”
Ronald Mosely, president of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, agreed that Pattenaude has taken steps that help faculty “feel ownership” in the process, even if it’s a painful process.
“I think that when something is presented as a fait accompli -- to faculty especially, but to any organization in modern times -- when it’s presented as if it’s already a done deal that fact is resented,” said Mosely, a professor of business and law at Maine's Machias campus. “It’s just straight management theory.”
There may be a flipside to that theory, however. While Manning has taken a different approach in Tennessee, and endured some criticism along the way, the chancellor maintains that presenting a proposal with great specificity had merit.
“The reason for putting that detail in there,” he said, “is you translate this into general philosophic statements and nobody knows what you’re talking about.”