Reframing Faculty Layoffs

An economic argument.

March 20, 2014

Lots of great discussion and debate around the Carroll and Felician faculty layoffs.

The comments largely fell along two lines of analysis:

Argument 1: The schools were operating under a set of economic imperatives that drove the layoffs. Therefore the actions are more understandable, if poorly handled, as higher ed is not immune from the laws revenues and costs.


Argument 2: The layoffs are the actions of a feckless set of administrators determined to lower costs by sacking more expensive senior faculty, with the intent of replacing full-time professors with cheaper contingent academic labor.

Both of these arguments no doubt hold some truth, and I am greatly simplifying the nuance and range of the discussion around the article.

An alternative way to analyze the Carroll and Felician layoffs would be to look at these actions from the point of view of the institutions.  

How would we interpret these actions if we served as a trustee?

The answer to these questions matters, as many institutions will be facing enrollment and cost pressures, and their actions will be determined as much by ideology as finances.

If I were advising the leadership of Carroll and Felician (or any other school), I’d make the following arguments:

1.  Faculty layoffs will inevitably accelerate, rather than deter, economic decline:

Tomorrow’s strong colleges and universities will build their reputations on their faculty. This faculty-centric viewpoint of institutional value will take different forms at different places.  At some schools, this strategy will mean highlighting small classes and the opportunities for personal mentoring and coaching relationships. At other schools the message will be around the opportunity to collaborate with faculty on research.

The reasons why this trend will play out have everything to do with the proliferation of online (and mobile) educational materials, and the move to badging and alternative credentialing.  As information becomes cheaper and more abundant, personal connections and mentoring and coaching becoming ever more valuable. As the floor for what constitutes an “education” gets raised, those practices that do not conform to Internet scale (priced at or near free) will evolve into the only practices worth paying for.  

Reduce the number of faculty and you reduce your value proposition.

Won’t less expensively trained (and more abundant) facilitators or lower cost contingent faculty fulfill these personal mentoring, coaching, and relational roles? In some places yes, but a strategy built around underinvesting in your most important assets (the faculty) will ultimately be self-defeating.   

Google could save money by hiring part-time and poorly trained engineers, but eventually the quality of their services would suffer in comparison to the competition.   

College and universities, at least those that wish to survive and proposer, should commit to a quality first strategy. They should make full-time the best of the part-timers, and do whatever it takes to retain and promote the most experienced, dedicated, and passionate faculty already on campus.

2. Faculty layoffs will inhibit the innovation that will be necessary if the institution is to evolve to face new funding, cost, and demographic realities:

The thing about layoffs is that they are, at best, a short term fix. Leave aside the expense to carry them out (and they are expensive). What layoffs do is make everyone else that remains run for cover.  

Nobody wants to stick their head out for fear of getting it chopped off.

An enormous amount of psychic energy is spent in existential worry.  Very little cycles are left over to figure out how to grow the business or to save costs.   

In higher ed all of us will need to figure out the best way to stay true to our core values while simultaneously evolving to adapt to the new realities of costs, demographics, and funding.  Change will require difficult decisions both large and small.  

Nobody, however, can change when they fear for their livelihood.   Nobody will take risks when risks might mean losing a job.

We will need everyone on our campuses to act as change agents.   We will need new ideas from every corner of the university.    

Layoffs only serve to cause paralysis.

3. The economic future of postsecondary education is much more positive than it may appear, but not for those institutions that layoff faculty:

The final point that I want to make is one that many of you will take issue.

My read is that the future of higher ed is much brighter than is commonly assumed, much more positive than the conventional wisdom will have us believe.

Why? Two reasons.   

The first is that the economic future of the U.S. is also better than many of you would believe. We are set to enjoy a number of dividends, from the transition to energy independence to the revival of skills-based manufacturing industries. (Amongst many other positive trends). We could argue the rest of our lives about the future economic prospects of the U.S., and I don’t think that my sunny outlook will convince many (if any), but your skepticism will not derail this future.

The second reason is related to the first. A growing U.S. economy will require more, not less, high quality postsecondary opportunities. We will need more skilled and trained workers, and the premium to skills will only be increasing.

Tomorrow’s students may not look like today’s, they will be older and may be working, but they will pay for quality.

Smart colleges and universities would be wise to prepare now for the day when the demand for quality exceeds available supply.

Making small but steady investments in faculty today will prove to be more efficient and effective than trying to play catch-up.   

Are these arguments hopefully naive?  Pathetically pollyannaish?

Congratulations.  You are now a Trustee of your alma mater.  How do you view the plan to layoff faculty?

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Joshua Kim

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