• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Unasked Question

Which budget cuts do the least harm?

July 27, 2021

Which budget cuts do the least harm?

It’s remarkably rare that anyone actually tries to answer the question with empirical evidence. Most of the time, the question either elicits pre-existing ideology or goes unasked entirely.

On the face of it, that’s strange. It’s a question that the vast majority of colleges confront seemingly every year, yet nobody dares ask it in public. You’d think that an industry organized around the production and dissemination of information could raise a basic question about its own operations.

I think it comes down to incentives. Nobody wants to be identified with the issue. It could easily be a career killer.

In the reductionist worlds of social media and/or campus politics, a line like “Jones says that outsourcing auxiliary services does less harm to a college than increasing its adjunct percentage” would get translated as “Jones supports outsourcing.” That’s a fundamental distortion, and one that could cost Jones dearly. Intuitively, most of us suspect that, so we avoid the question entirely.

There’s a more sophisticated political argument to the effect that answering a question like that is effectively giving aid and comfort to those who are inclined to cut funding to higher ed. That argument has some truth to it, but at this point, those horses are out of the barn. Years of austerity followed by pandemic-related enrollment drops have forced the issue. But for want of guidance, most of us have had to rely on a combination of instinct and hope. Some of us have better instincts than others, but it would be nice to have actual data.

It’s easy to find arguments in the other direction. We know many of the components of improved results for students. But many of those are expensive. Even the ASAP program at CUNY, a remarkable achievement in improving graduation rates, actually increased the cost per student by double-digit percentages. Best practices cost money.

A metric like “does the least harm” also has to define "harm." I suspect that the definition many of us on campus would use is markedly different from the definition many elected officials would use. That would explain a lot.

Still, it seems like someone should have made some headway by now.

I imagine that the most revealing studies would be comparative. College A eliminates travel and cuts positions by attrition. College B closes an off-campus location and several programs. College C imposes a salary freeze and offers a retirement incentive. Years later, which college is in the best shape? I don’t think there’s an a priori answer; it’s a fundamentally empirical question. It requires research.

Context matters, of course; there’s always going to be an element of “it depends.” But the same can be said of student success, and we analyze that. Even if general findings need to be translated for various contexts, knowing what they are would help.

Think tanks, tenured scholars of higher ed and research institutes: any light you could shed would be appreciated. The last few years have made it clear that avoiding the issue doesn’t make it go away. And if I’ve missed something, I’d be much obliged if someone could send it my way. I’d be happy to be wrong on this one.


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