• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Title

Follow the money

I've been thinking some about structural barriers to change. You know, those aspects of how Greenback's organized, or how it behaves, or its institutional culture (including those questions all Greenbackers are subtly conditioned never to ask) which have the effect of keeping us going in the same direction even whilst we're telling ourselves how much we want to change course.

August 5, 2009
 

I've been thinking some about structural barriers to change. You know, those aspects of how Greenback's organized, or how it behaves, or its institutional culture (including those questions all Greenbackers are subtly conditioned never to ask) which have the effect of keeping us going in the same direction even whilst we're telling ourselves how much we want to change course.

A number of things come to mind, but the biggest one (at least so far) is money. Budget. Who gets how much, and for what purpose. After all, who pays the piper calls the tune and who gets the biggest budget can best afford pipers.

The main thing you (or I, or most anyone) need(s) to know about Greenback's budget is that (s)he doesn't need to know anything about Greenback's budget. It's a secret, beyond the grand-total information the IRS requires we file. The budget department can see it, the Cabinet (I presume) can see it, the Board (I hope) looks at it, but pretty much nobody else gets a peak at the whole thing. Deans and department heads get to look at their respective portions, but nobody knows what anybody else has to play with.

I'm sure there are historic and organizational reasons for the restriction of financial information. But most of them, I suspect, have their genesis in organizational thinking based on strict hierarchies -- 19th century Prussian army models of how things should work, not 21st century realities regarding the herding of cats.

And, in terms of changing how things work on campus, this culture of secrecy (or, probably better, "ignorance") pretty much takes financial thinking out of the equation. How to save money, if it's money not flowing to your department, becomes impossible to think about. How to reallocate money currently supporting less-than-sustainable practices becomes hard to consider. "We can't do that, there's no money" becomes an effective way of quashing any idea. Decisions which could be made (or at least proposed) in strictly business terms become immediately political. (Not to say there shouldn't be a political aspect to them, just that the political shouldn't necessarily be the first or only hurdle to get past.)

My impression is that the situation differs at state schools, because most states require full disclosure of budgets of public institutions. And I don't know if the same code of omerta applies to SLACs as does in multiversities. But in the multiversity context, my conclusion is that planning for institutional or cultural change -- at least when that change is likely to affect operating budgets -- can only be effective if the people doing it are located so as to be able to see the full expanse of budget information. And, at least at Greenback, what that will require is being located organizationally near some seat of power.

And when I say "power", I don't mean electricity.

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