In good times and bad over three decades, I have been involved in college financial decision-making as a faculty member and administrator. Whether it was at wealthy institutions like Harvard University or Bowdoin College, places of moderate means like Guilford College or public institutions like Michigan State or the University of Massachusetts, budgeting always involved not enough revenue and too many expenses. Frequently, trying to achieve a balanced budget was equivalent to trying to get 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound bag.
Those decisions have become far more difficult in the present economic maelstrom as revenues have deteriorated along with the stock market and tax base and expenses, especially for financial aid, threaten to skyrocket. The difficulty multiplies if the institution uses participatory budgeting processes in which the community from faculty to students gets involved.
Now I lead a college that uses principles from our Quaker heritage to make many decisions including the strategic plan, long range financial plan, and annual budget. Let me disclose that I am a Roman Catholic. As the first non-Quaker chief executive since the college started as a boarding school in 1837, I needed to learn about Quaker principles and practices, and how to apply them in my new role. While only 10 percent of our employees and students formally describe themselves as Quaker, and the community includes many faith traditions, we strive to maintain the principles and practices of our history. We use them for the Board of Trustees and its committees, faculty meeting, and campus committees of every kind including budget. Which might be applicable on your campus? With apologies to Quaker colleagues for probable oversimplifications, let me suggest seven principles as this non-Quaker has experienced them in budgeting and financial decision-making.
(1) Sense of the meeting. With colleges and universities threatened by economic catastrophe, momentous decisions about where to find the revenue and how to spend it loom large. The “sense of the meeting” is equivalent to a decision but is not handled like the typical motion. It arises out of a sense that the truth of a “best” solution exists if we enter discussion with open minds and a willingness to be led by others, even if a proposal is already under consideration. Participants are asked to share their own views, not to characterize or critique the views of others. After identifying themselves if the meeting is large or the membership new, participants frequently are asked to talk once on a topic until others get into the conversation. Although there might be informal ballots, or a show of hands, to see where people stand during the discussion, we never vote. Voting negates the power of the whole group and may lessen the sense of responsibility of the minority.
(2) Decisions by consensus. This does not mean that everyone has to agree but that there is “substantial unity” about what to do. People either endorse the proposal or, if opposed, agree to “stand aside” and not prevent consensus. This principle prevents a majority opinion from dominating the meeting and decision because any one in opposition can refuse to stand aside, prevent consensus, and defeat the proposal. Dissent is viewed as a sign that the truth has not been discerned. This principle encourages respect for the minority, openness to new information, and serious consultation. It does not mean chronic compromise until a common position is reached but a search for truth and how to serve the financial interests of the community most effectively.
(3) Moment of silence. Some Quakers worship in silence and only speak when the “Spirit” moves them. At Guilford, moments of silence open and close many meetings, classes, and events. These moments allow meeting participants to transition from what they were just doing to focus (or “center”) on the purpose of the meeting, and then at the end to transition from the meeting to another activity. I have found that even 30 seconds of silence improves meeting participation and productivity. It helps students in the political science class I teach every spring even more because of their hectic lives and shorter attention spans. The same benefit accrues to budget and trustee finance committees and senior staff. Moments of silence assist in centering on seemingly intractable financial issues amidst economic tumult and everything else that competes for their interest.
(4) Queries. Decisions about tuition and fees, endowment spending, employee salaries, and other budget items result from complex strategic, financial, political, and other factors that are too often implicit rather than explicit. “Queries” are questions with no simple or standard answers that promote self- and group examination through inward reflection. Queries remind us that our actions are proper because they are done thoughtfully and conscientiously and not because they conform to abstract rules. For example, a budget committee might ask itself as it neared consensus on the annual budget: What have you done to balance the financial needs of your own work or department with the financial needs of the entire college? How do you work to influence investments of college assets toward socially desirable ends, avoiding speculation and activities wasteful or harmful to others? Do you assume your fair share of financial support? Do you support the concept of inter-generational equity that avoids meeting today’s needs by selling assets or irresponsible borrowing that mortgage the college’s future?
(5) Influence of testimonies. Core values are the essential and enduring tenets of the organization that guide decision-making and behavior. A budget might be guided by the core value of “sustainability” in support of environmental investment or “stewardship” to ensure that maintenance was not deferred. Quaker testimonies—simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality— are the equivalent of core values with even more emphasis on living them in practice. Here is how I have witnessed testimonies influencing budgets.
- “Simplicity” contributes to lean budgets and plain speech during debates.
- “Peace” is not only about opposition to wars but also the peaceful resolution of conflict and seeing good — something of God — in all people. Thus, participants in financial decisions might question your position but not your motives, and strive to create a budget without threatening speech or unruly behavior.
- “Integrity” means that the budget is clear, factual, and genuinely funds the obligations of the institution, and that the process is obvious to everyone.
- “Community” argues for participative decision-making and involvement of faculty, staff, and students. A budget that serves community reflects campus input and is transparent in terms of actions and analysis.
- “Equality” recognizes differences in responsibility and authority but treats participants in the budgeting process more for the expertise and experience they bring than their rank or position. Almost everyone is called by first names to show equality. A budget debate can be more spirited and honest when I am called “Kent” rather than “President Chabotar.”
(6) Eldering. This technique most often involves a committee of experienced members trying to counsel participants who might be disruptive, absent too often, come unprepared, and other unproductive behavior. In one budget committee, a member always turned the discussion to a personal concern about student fees no matter what the topic on the agenda. To paraphrase Churchill, he would not change his mind or the subject. Being advised by peers outside of the meeting greatly improved behavior and made him more productive and less alienated. Eldering might also occur when the committee queries why colleagues are opposed to a proposal and what it will take them to approve it, or at least stand aside. The chair may call a time out during a discussion or an early adjournment to permit tempers to subside, thoughtful reflection, and opportunities for eldering. Another standard Quaker admonition helped in this and many other fiscal situations: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
(7) Friend speaks my mind. Grandstanding and repetitious remarks slow down the meeting and prevent members from discerning the truth. Instead, when you agree with someone you say simply “Friend speaks my mind” and sit down. Quakers are officially known as the Religious Society of Friends but a Catholic like me or anyone can be a Friend at a meeting. You can also say, “I agree.” This not only saves time but also allows the chair and others to gauge more accurately the sense of the meeting.
The most recent use of Quaker principles occurred last fall 2008 when the trustees, administration, and budget committee worked together to deal with a burgeoning budget deficit for the current fiscal year largely caused by actual and projected enrollment shortfalls. We developed three budget scenarios of increasing pessimism, picked the “worse case” scenario, and cut $2.7 million from the budget including the elimination of 20 faculty and staff positions. Developing consensus on these difficult choices required skilled chairs guiding discussion to a sense of the meeting, participants eldering others to address concerns and gain acceptance, and moments of silence to center ourselves before engaging in honest debates in the context of our core values and testimonies. Thankfully, enrollment has been much better than expected. We may restore some of the reductions, starting with employee pay increases, the possibility of which was anticipated and given top priority in the fall process.
At a time of international crisis in which colleges and universities are under unprecedented financial stress, others might also try a decision-making approach that Quakers have used with success for over three hundred years. It has worked for me for almost seven years. None of these principles guarantees an effective committee or a balanced budget. All are subject to abuse or mistakes. Nevertheless, the process that results encourages more inclusive budgeting in which facts rule, participants listen to each other and are open to new ideas, and people take their time to do right. Try one or all seven and perhaps you too will say, “Friend speaks my mind.”
Kent John Chabotar is president and professor of political science at Guilford College.