The Christian Theological Seminary, in Indiana, has announced a "sustainability plan" that involves buyouts to faculty members while looking for partnerships with other institutions and developing new financial strategies. While not detailed in the announcement, the buyouts could substantially change the nature of the institution. Some concerned students have heard rumors that essentially all faculty members are being asked to accept deals. But a spokeswoman for the seminary said that the buyout offers have been presented to 70 percent of tenured faculty members.
The job market for faculty positions in religion was relatively stable in 2012, better than it was immediately after the economic downturn hit in 2008, but still down from earlier, according to a report by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
Based on job listings with the associations, the report says that the 2012 totals were only about 80 percent of those in 2008. In the past three years, the scholarly sub-specialties in which there were the greatest increases in positions were New Testament, Christian origins and ancient Christianity; and systematic/constructive theology.
Among the specialties showing declines were introduction to religion; Hebrew Bible; and religions of the ancient Near East.
About a year ago I was paging through a report prepared for our college by a group of leading risk-management consultants. Illustrated with brightly colored heat maps and tables, the report’s conclusions looked fairly reasonable. But then I reached a chart titled “Reputation Risk.” Tucked among the factors that contribute to reputation, listed only after “branding” and “community relations,” was the phrase “academic excellence.”
As a longtime faculty member and dean of the college, I reacted strongly. Academic excellence, I thought, deserved more than this supporting role. For your typical manufactured product, its quality may be adjusted to optimize reputation with customers (and thus profits). But academic excellence? That’s the ultimate goal. It’s what we should most fear putting at risk.
At the end of June, I would complete my term as dean. As my thoughts kept turning to risk and liberal education, I talked with the president. We agreed that as a transitional step before returning to teach, I could spend one year conducting a risk project. Some of its goals are specific to our campus, but more broadly it’s a labor of translation. Why would that be needed?
The Language of Risk
Corporate jargon may help explain why campuswide awareness of risk has not fully taken hold at many academic institutions. Deans, presidents, and faculty leaders can find the framework of Enterprise Risk Management, commonly known as ERM, alienating. The talk of suppliers, products, deliverables, and profits is not our language.
Risk management was born to protect the bottom line of corporations. (Success has been mixed, but that’s a different story.) For the past 10 years or so, financial consultants offering risk services have tried to expand into the higher education market. While it’s hard to reject the pitch that “nonprofits face risks, too,” one could also argue academe is sufficiently different from the corporate world that frameworks like ERM will require at least a translation — and perhaps deeper revision — before they can serve us well.
Taking Risk Campuswide
In many ways my transition feels natural. For five years I was second to the president, serving as vice president for academic affairs. I helped to confront the risks that typically face a college, from anticipating a flu pandemic to deciding whether to shut down during a blizzard; from the agonies of the recession to nervous reports of little brown bats winging through the chapel. I’m well-prepared to step back and evaluate how our college responds to risk. Yet to my knowledge, this particular administrative move is unprecedented.
At most places — as I know from recently attending the national meeting of URMIA, the University Risk Management and Insurance Association — risk management lives in the treasurer’s office. Risk managers may have a background in environmental health and safety or human resources; often their primary training is in insurance. Regardless of specific professional field, college risk managers are likely to have broad responsibilities, from regulatory compliance to decisions about campus events, and from employee training to coverage for student travel abroad. Groups of universities have formed organizations like United Educators and EIIA (Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators) to offer insurance and other risk services.
The risk managers at the conference were forthcoming and curious. My status as a faculty member was more interesting to them than my recent deanship. They told me that they wish professors understood more about how risk works. The risk managers want to be perceived less as naysayers and obstructionists, and more as a resource to keep activities safe and legal. They don’t want to shut down study abroad, but they want to be sure the college has a plan for evacuation in the event of national crisis or natural disaster. From where they sit in the finance office, it’s not easy to have this conversation with the faculty.
As we talk, it’s clear the risk managers recognize that for colleges and universities the real bottom line is the institution’s mission: to teach and conduct research. Threats to the mission are, for us all, the ultimate risk. And since no one knows more about teaching and scholarship than they do, the faculty is the proper guardian of college mission. I now start to understand that purposeful risk engagement could help colleges take a fresh look at shared governance.
Risk and Governance
Faculty leaders, whether as champions or critics of a proposed initiative, are all too familiar with hearing about risk from administrators, legal counsel, and even from board members. Fiduciary risk, compliance risk, liability: We’ve all seen the risk card shut a conversation down.
But once they are fluent in risk, academic leaders will contribute more effectively. They can evaluate and speak to risk in the special context of a college’s mission. As any risk manager will tell you, risk can be positive or negative. The uncertainty at hand may represent an awesome academic opportunity, or may threaten what the institution stands for. Shared governance will work better when we succeed in having all the relevant dimensions of risk — including the ultimate risk, to institutional mission — fully voiced and appropriately weighed.
Wisconsin’s two major education unions are planning to merge, in light of declining memberships following 2011 anti-union legislation, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelreported. Under the plan, the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, which includes faculty at public, postsecondary institutions, would join with the National Education Association-affiliated Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest K-12 teachers union. The new union would be called Wisconsin Together, tentatively starting in September. A vote on the merger is slated for April.
Following Act 10, which made union membership and dues-paying voluntary, the K-12 union has lost about one-third of its members, according to the report. The higher education union has about 6,500 members, down from a peak of 16,000. Kim Kohlhaas, AFT-Wisconsin president, said the new structure would allow the union through pooled resources to focus on professional development and advocacy for public education – not just faculty working conditions. “I think Act 10 was a huge eye-opener for us,” Kohlhaas told the Journal Sentinel. “I think historically even the union got caught up in [collective bargaining], and it used to be a lot of contract organization. This allows us an opportunity to focus on that completely differently.”
If approved, the joint AFT-NEA union become the sixth such union nationwide, after those in Minnesota, Florida, North Dakota, Montana and New York.