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    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.

Potemkin Campuses
October 31, 2010 - 9:00pm

Do you know the story of the Potemkin Villages? Russian Minister Gregory Potyomkin allegedly ordered the building of fake villages and imported “happy serfs” to impress Catherine II as she toured recently conquered territory in the Crimea in 1787. Whether myth or fact, today the term Potemkin Village has come to mean “an impressive façade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition.”

At the risk of hyperbole, I’m concerned about the emergence of Potemkin campuses, as reflected by the deteriorating infrastructure required to support academic programs as well as institutional operations and campus services. At a time when the nation needs and demands more from higher education, the nation’s public and private/non-profit postsecondary institutions are struggling to maintain academic programs and institutional operations with fewer financial resources. Intended to inspire, the mantra offered during economic downturns – “we will have to do more with less, and do it better “– at best annoys.

Community colleges, often the canary in the coal mine of higher education, are on the front wave of this Potemkin campus experience. On-campus and on-line enrollments are booming in the nation’s public two-year colleges, in large part a response to the current economic downturn. Yet two recent surveys of community college presidents conducted by The Campus Computing Project and the League for Innovation in winter 2009 and again winter 2010 in reveal that budgets are eroding while enrollments are exploding. More than half (52 percent) of the community presidents participating in the winter 2010 survey reported a budget reduction, compared to 57 percent in the 2009 survey. However, the proportion of community college presidents reporting budget cuts that exceeded 10 percent more than doubled from 7 percent in the 2009 survey to 20 percent in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the mix of rising enrollments and continuing budget cuts force community colleges into a Potemkin strategy: hiring part-time faculty to meet the demand for additional classes, but not hiring the necessary support personnel – academic advisors, developmental ed specialists, vocational counselors, and instructional and IT support personnel needed to assist students and staff instructional programs. So while campus officials can report adding classes to meet demand, they are not addressing the increased pressures on the instructional and operational infrastructure that accompanies the rising enrollments.

Additional evidence of the Potemkin campus strategy in community colleges is reflected in new data on IT budgets from the 2010 Campus Computing Survey. While budget cuts seem to be abating in public and private four-year colleges and universities over the past year, the percentage of community colleges reporting a budget cut in central IT services increased from 38 percent in fall 2009 to 46 percent in fall 2010. Given that IT resources are an essential part of the infrastructure for on-campus and online courses and services, it makes no sense to cut IT budgets. Unfortunately, the data tell a different story.

Yet the Potemkin campus problem is not limited to community colleges. The Los Angeles Times (30 Oct 2010) reports that both the University of California (UC) system and the California State University System (CSUC) are exploring either mid-year and/or fall 2011 fee increases intended to “to make up for severe cuts from previous years that have left [UC and CSUC campuses] in a deep hole and forced drastic reductions in course offerings, in student services and in the numbers of part-time faculty.” For UC students, the impending rise in fall 2011 fees, estimated to be 7-10 percent, follows a 32 percent increase in undergraduate tuition and campus fees for the current (2010-11) academic year. CSUC undergraduates confront a potential 5 percent mid-year fee increase, to be followed by a 10 percent increased for fall 2011.

Similar scenarios are playing out in most other states as public colleges and universities raise tuition to offset reductions in the annual budget allocation from the legislature. Admittedly, this is not a new scenario: rather, it is the routine response to budget cuts during economic downturns.

Lest this narrative be misinterpreted, I do not believe that trustees, presidents, provosts, and other senior campus officials happily support the budget cuts that have wrecked havoc upon almost all sectors of American higher education over the past two years. Moreover, I believe that campus officials really do understand the dire impact of the continuing budget cuts on academic programs, institutional operations, and campus services.

What’s to be done? Beyond the efforts of college presidents, the conversation about Potemkin campuses needs to go off-campus – into the state legislatures, the public square, and the corner office. Where are the raised, public voices of corporate leaders? This is a non-partisan issue: across the political spectrum, those who express concern about the vitality and competitive health of American corporations and the nation’s economy should recognize that human capital and talent development, as well as tax policy, warrant their attention.

Baby Boomers were big beneficiaries of the explosive post-World War II expansion of American higher education – growth supported by state dollars to build campuses and federal dollars for research and student aid. Those who preceded us on-campus, in state legislatures, and in corporate offices did for us. It is time for those who now occupy these same chairs and offices to ask what can – indeed must – be done for others, what must be done to avoid the creation of Potemkin campuses.


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