Helping Faculty 'Get It'

The provost of Birmingham-Southern College, which has had a rough decade, talks with professors about the changing higher education environment, hoping the context will help them better understand the college's situation.

August 10, 2016
Birmingham-Southern College

Attend a meeting of senior college administrators, and you'll probably hear someone gripe about how the faculty don't understand the challenges -- financial and otherwise -- that their institution is facing. A typical explanation is that the faculty are focused on their discipline or their research, or they don't view finances as their problem. A typical complaint is "They just don't get it."

Michelle Behr, the provost and dean of the college at Birmingham-Southern College, didn't want to be just another complaining administrator. So last fall, she began holding two monthly meetings for the faculty to consider the current higher education landscape -- and what it means for the future of liberal arts colleges like Birmingham-Southern.

One of the meetings involved small groups of faculty members, while the other brought together the faculty as a whole. Each month featured a different topic, with subjects including external accountability, changing technologies and the changing demographics of the student population.

“The external environment in which higher education is operating is very much changed,” Behr said. “I wanted to figure out a way to help faculty understand that there is risk involved in not changing at all. I didn’t want to make it a threatening conversation, but rather one that invited faculty to be in the middle of the innovation and creativity.”

A Difficult Decade

In many ways, Birmingham-Southern is emblematic of the embattled liberal arts college. The institution has seen its share of troubles over the last decade, including presidential turnover and deep layoffs and cuts.

In 2010, Birmingham-Southern uncovered a major financial aid error. The college had for years been adding Pell Grants to student financial aid packages without adjusting its own contribution downward.

To regain its financial footing, Birmingham-Southern determined that it needed to cut spending by $10 million a year. So the college announced plans to make 51 layoffs, suspend contributions to retirement funds and cut employees’ pay by an average of 10 percent.

Financial hurdles aside, the college also grappled with the so-called revolving door of administrative turnover. Then president David Pollick resigned shortly after the financial aid error came to light. Retired General Charles C. Krulak took the helm for the next four years, retiring in the spring of 2015.

Edward F. Leonard III served for just one year after that, stepping down last month without a public explanation. The college is now hoping for a shot at stability with the arrival last month of President Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith.

When the monthly meetings about the higher education environment took place during the 2015-16 academic year, Leonard was still president and the institution had made modest progress in boosting enrollment. But the turbulence of the last decade cast a shadow over the meetings, several faculty members said.

“The financial crisis we went through in 2010, that left deep wounds and scars on the faculty. It left a lot of frustration and fear,” said Randall Law, associate professor of history and chair of Lupton Area at Birmingham-Southern. (The college has a unique system of organizing academic departments, placing them in one of three areas. Each area has a chair, who performs some administrative duties and meets weekly with Behr.)

“The meetings were very much colored by the financial problems that we had faced and are still facing,” said Megan Gibbons, professor of biology and chair of Wightman Area. “Most of the faculty were here in 2010 and went through that. We’re still feeling a lot of it. For example, our retirement was cut, and it hasn’t gotten back to where it was … whereas the administration has almost entirely turned over since then.”

During the small-group meetings, some faculty members expressed skepticism about whether Birmingham-Southern could actually devote funds to pursuing the ideas they generated, Gibbons said. These professors made remarks along the lines of “I don’t know why we’re talking about this; we don’t have any money to pursue anything anyway” and “This is pointless; nothing’s going to be done,” she said.

But at the same time, other faculty members became active participants in the meetings out of a desire to avoid repeating past mistakes, Gibbons said. “We don’t want to be in that situation again,” she said. “I think that was driving a lot of people to participate.”

Still, Behr stressed that the meetings were supposed to survey higher education in general, rather than Birmingham-Southern in particular. “Obviously, Birmingham-Southern came up in the discussions,” she said. “But the discussions were not focused on Birmingham-Southern. The discussions were focused on the broader ecosphere of higher education. I think that’s really important, because it’s helpful for faculty to situate themselves and not just look internally but look at the bigger landscape.”

Reinventing the Faculty Role

Many administrators don’t think the faculty plays a meaningful role in collegewide budget discussions. That’s a key finding from Inside Higher Ed’s 2016 Survey of College and University Business Officers.

The survey drew responses from chief business officers at 386 public and private institutions. Just 43 percent of respondents agreed that professors play a meaningful role in budget discussions. Among those who said the faculty play a meaningful role in budget discussions, 27 percent believed they should not actually play such a role. Among those who said the faculty do not play a meaningful role on their campuses, 57 percent felt this was appropriate.

But Behr differs from most survey respondents. She believes administrators have a duty to involve the faculty in discussions about important topics, including finances.

For the meetings in October, Behr picked as a topic the changing financial landscape of higher education. She asked the faculty to prepare for these meetings by reading a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “How Small Colleges Are Finding Ways to Survive” and a report by the Davis Educational Foundation titled “An Inquiry Into the Rising Cost of Higher Education.”

Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education and codirector of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, said Behr's choice to involve faculty in these conversations was a unique one. “It is unfortunately commonplace for administrators to decide it’s too political or difficult to involve faculty,” she said. “There is an assumption that they wouldn’t be able to make hard decisions, like closing programs if needed.”

A 2010 study published in the Review of Higher Education even found that involving faculty members in difficult discussions -- as part of shared governance -- leads to better outcomes, Kezar said. “The study found that the institutions that took a shared governance approach not only were able to make those difficult decisions by involving faculty, but also the outcomes were better after,” she said. “So if you had two institutions that both had to make hard decisions, those that involved the faculty had much better morale and more trust between groups and more communication.”

Gibbons said all the meetings -- including those about the changing financial landscape -- gave faculty members the sense that they had a real stake in important university issues. “As time went on, there was more and more buy-in and trust from faculty members,” she said. “By the end, most faculty felt like they had real opportunity to participate in the process …. I think that is a very powerful way to connect the administration to the faculty.”

A Modest Proposal

In March of last year, Behr asked the faculty to submit proposals based on ideas they had generated during the meetings. Out of 90-odd faculty members, 35 put forward a proposal.

The proposals had to meet six criteria, Behr said. They had to be collaborative, sustainable, responsive to the external environment of higher education, either revenue enhancing or cost saving, beneficial for the college’s visibility, and consonant with the college’s mission, she said.

Out of the 35 proposals, six rose to the top in an online survey completed by over 80 percent of the faculty, Behr said. The six proposals related to either the curriculum or academic affairs. Those related to the curriculum called for establishing a liberal arts-minded computer science program, integrating more community partnerships into the urban environmental studies program, and creating a concentration of interdisciplinary courses in public health, she said.

The six proposals will go through the normal faculty governance process to determine their feasibility, Behr said. She stressed the fact that these proposals are not a done deal, and they are not guaranteed to be implemented.

Peter van Zandt, assistant professor of biology at Birmingham-Southern, came up with the proposal for the liberal arts-minded computer science program, which would likely be called Liberal Arts Computing” or Creative and Applied Computing. He said the program would replace the computer science major that Birmingham-Southern eliminated as part of the cuts in 2010.

“I was here when the old computer science major went away,” van Zandt said. “It just seemed like something that has been missing at our school. … My guess is that students interested in computing don’t come here in the first place because we don’t have anything for them.”

“What we don’t want is a computer science degree,” van Zandt added. “Being a liberal arts institution, our main goal is to not train people in specific careers. We want people to be broadly educated and critical thinkers and problem solvers -- all those buzzwords you associate with the liberal arts.”

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