Last week I passed along an observation from a reader about the seeming absence of business acumen among academic leaders and the consequent gaps in shared governance.
Karen Novick, an associate dean at Rutgers, offered the following response, which deserves to be quoted at length.
The question you asked, “Is there a reasonably elegant way to get some folks with financial acumen to weigh in without causing undue conflict?” points to the lack of trust that exists between the financial and academic professionals at universities. Your question assumes that even suggesting a finance professional join the conversation will cause conflict.
I’d suggest to your correspondent that if talking about finances is new to everyone in the room, they start by taking the lead in slowly introducing financial considerations as topics come up. Depending on the situation, here are a few examples of what could be asked: “If we offer three or five specializations from the very beginning but don’t have the cohort size we hope, are we assuring low-enrolled classes? Will that affect the financial stability of the program?” “If Choice A (one curriculum design) and Choice B (a different curriculum design) are equally viable from an academic point of view, are they also equally viable financially?” The group won't necessarily be able to answer the questions, especially if they are all faculty and deans, but it raises everyone’s consciousness.
As the group sees that the financial questions can be introduced in a rational way, it may then become easier to suggest inviting someone who can help think through the financial implications of different decisions. That person would obviously have to demonstrate that they are dedicated to the mission of teaching and learning. (Someone like me, an associate dean who is equally involved in academics and finance, may be a good choice.) The person can help the group explore different assumptions and then calculate some quick projections for each of those. I’m talking about assumptions related to, for example, the number of students to admit per term, number of sections offered and size of classes, ratio of full- and part-time faculty teaching, number of TAs, and things like that. Sometimes the quick calculations are all it takes to realize that some choices are more sustainable than others.
Your writer expressed surprise that no one in the room has an “extensive” financial or business background, and you said you would not want finance folks making every academic decision. Of course not, that would be an extreme position with no academic integrity. But the other extreme, to have finances completely ignored when making academic decisions, is also very problematic.
Broadly, yes. I’d add a couple of caveats.
The first is that discussions of budgets around a particular program usually go far beyond the individual program. “There’s no money for my program, but you keep hiring administrators?” “The real problem is that the state is cutting our funding. We can’t enable that!” In other words, rather than suggesting that their own program should be sustainable on its own, they assume that some level of loss is to be expected and it’s the job of the larger institution to carry that loss. (In their defense, that was the founding financial model for public colleges.) When they make those moves—sometimes in good faith, sometimes not—the issue is less about financial literacy than about institutional trust.
The second is that even the folks who claim financial ignorance (or purity) the loudest can be quite savvy about protecting themselves. At a previous college, a professor I will not name mastered the art of dividing one program into multiple “options,” each with its own distinctive requirements. That way, whenever a section came in low, he could claim that students need it to graduate so it should be immune to cuts. Anyone who has ever been through serious deliberations about changing general education requirements will have seen many faculty do certain kinds of math with vigor.
Still, the larger point holds. Yes, self-interest is real, and the line between thoughtful discussion of the greater good and interest-group politics can be blurry. But it’s also true that democratic processes work best when voters are informed. In the case of shared governance, that means the faculty, staff and administration having some sense of how the numbers work. If they don’t, then they leave the economic decisions by default to those who do. Better to step up.
Thank you, Dean Novick, for showing how.