Economic Crisis 2009-10

Arizona universities turn to cities in lieu of state support

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As states pull support for higher education construction, cities offer incentives to develop new campuses.

Colleges place more emphasis on liquidity and tracking it

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In the wake of credit crisis, universities have improved liquidity and developed new tools to manage money and communicate financial decisions.

Drake fund-raising campaign on track despite breaking rules

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Despite an unconventional structure and a public launch in the middle of the economic downturn, Drake U. administrators are hopeful for outcome of $200 million campaign.

2011 endowment returns near pre-recession levels

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Preliminary data show endowment gains approaching pre-recession levels, with wealthy institutions sticking to their high-risk, high-reward investment strategies.

Reports find student aid shift from states to federal government

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With tuition continuing to rise, College Board reports find the burden of paying for college shifting from states to the federal government.

It's Not Me. It's You.

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After three years of appropriations cuts, public colleges use tuition increases to draw attention to what the state is no longer providing.

Safer Bets

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Despite holding the same risky assets that led to losses in 2008, universities have learned from experience and have less to fear in current volatility, experts say.

Fixing Debt

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In the face of economic and political uncertainty, colleges are working to convert potentially volatile debt to a more stable form, but peace of mind comes at a cost.

Money Over Mind

The recession that seems likely to shape our midterm elections has also made visible a gradual and unfortunate change in American education. Imagination has been devalued in our schools, colleges, and universities over the last 40 years as their policies have been increasingly shaped by the values and practices of big business. In judging the corporate and entrepreneurial management styles now popular in education, including the Obama administration’s “race to the top,” the unquantifiable, old-fashioned word imagination is useful in revealing the limitations we find in much corporate thinking about educational reform.

Attempts to apply business practices in education lack the wholeness of vision we associate with acts of imagination, a problem we explore in administrative trends and in the classroom. We agree with much that Diane Ravitch says in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books), her indictment of educational reform in our public schools. Ravitch was once an enthusiastic supporter of “No Child Left Behind"; her account of changing her mind about “market reforms” in public education exposes an ideology that is becoming as influential in colleges and universities as in the public schools focused on in her book. She reveals how corporate thinking has made our institutions vulnerable to technological and managerial fads that undermine creative thinking.

We understand acts of imagination to refer to complex thoughts and feelings that allow people to find new ways of thinking. They can transform complicated, even chaotic, experience into narrative, one important way we find and make meaning. They are a way of knowing, not primarily “data-driven,” but grounded in complex knowledge and direct experience. They differ as much from free-floating fantasies as from narrowly specialized thinking. Acts of imagination usually require prolonged attention that temporarily sets aside everything else. Sustained imagining is a balancing act that thrives on both solitude and the stimuli that come with participation in complex communities embodied in actual places, not just metaphorical versions of community found online. Acts of imagination produce results as practical as changing one’s mind, understanding another’s perspective, finding the limits of one’s knowledge, or recognizing the need to seek help.

Sometimes imagination provides glimpses of the wholeness of creation and insight into the injustices that betray that wholeness. Imagination recognizes the necessity of communities that include whole ecosystems. Authentic education fosters acts of imagination and contributes to civil society. Our use of imagination, though grounded in the study of literature, is not metaphorical when used for creative thinking in other fields, where it is often as important as it is in literature and the arts. Because acts of imagination are human acts, they are bound to be flawed, insufficient, imperfect; but humility is built into acts of imagination, a natural consequence of recognizing our human dependence on much in creation over which we have no control.

Money has long played a role in cultivating imagination. It can be used to encourage imagination when it buys freedom to give sustained attention to a problem or question. But a focus on money provides a rationale for fostering another way of thinking by bringing corporate executives and business values into educational institutions. Ravitch shows how money has recently created restrictive “market reforms” in education as a result of the ascendancy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation: “Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse.” What the Gates, the Waltons, and the Broads have sought, according to Ravitch, are “strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.” The result has been a top-down approach to educational reform. The consensus among these powerful, wealthy foundations -- “bastions of unaccountable power,” Ravitch calls them -- has allowed them to influence policies in school districts and states and the U.S. Department of Education. These “reforms” have been echoed in changing management styles at the private colleges we know.

Over the last several years we have observed in private liberal arts colleges the emphasis on data-driven accountability that Ravitch finds in public schools. We have watched administrations grow larger and more powerful. Policy decisions formerly made by faculties are increasingly the task of administrators, and students are viewed as consumers. Personnel decisions have come to rely ever more heavily on data collected from student evaluations and the assessment of scholarship by outside experts. Growing numbers of people granted tenure are left with a sense that they barely qualify. Colleges and universities have come to rely increasingly on contingent faculty with little job security, few benefits, and low salaries.

As colleges adopt management models that emphasize corporate efficiency, opportunities for creative, collaborative thought are increasingly undermined. Shared governance begins to erode. Deference to hierarchy increases. Even at an institution like Vassar College, with a history of progressive work practices, marketplace analysis becomes the central guiding force in restructuring. For example, creative writing and the introductory, “The Art of Reading and Writing,” became focal areas for saving money at Vassar. Non-tenure-track writing professors have been losing suffrage, pay, health and retirement benefits, and jobs. Reducing the number of available non-tenure-track faculty members has reduced the elasticity of the curriculum at Vassar and damaged the programs, some of Vassar’s central areas of productivity and creativity. Although Vassar is an institution with three-quarters of a billion dollars in its endowment, for the last two years almost all discussion of changes in educational offerings or policies has been based on the need to save money.

Founded for women over 150 years ago, Vassar offered liberal arts courses that mirrored the curriculum available to men. Of course, Vassar has not always been sensitive to issues of class or race, but the college worked to become more inclusive across socioeconomic lines among the professors, students and workers who make up the community. The dual strands of elitism and service have been in tension at Vassar throughout its history, as they have been at many private colleges, and the institution has been responsive to various definitions of diversity through more inclusive practices and an evolving, more diverse curriculum.

As a workplace, Vassar has been committed to providing decent wages and job security for its employees. The college has long been considered one of the fairest workplaces in the Hudson Valley. Attempts have also been made not to exploit those most marginalized in the academic workplace, the adjuncts, by attempting to provide sufficient course loads so that the college could provide health insurance. These practices have offered a “hidden curriculum” at Vassar College, embodying as they do a decent workplace and a commitment to diversity and to the most vulnerable.

In the last two years, Vassar has responded to diminished endowment earnings by cutting curriculum, faculty, and support staff, and laying off workers in a time of rising unemployment in the surrounding community. Outsourcing of work and risk has become the preferred management practice, although Vassar administrators refuse to acknowledge this. Beginning early in 2009, the administration has seemed bent on breaking or reducing the power of the unions by requiring pre-dawn shifts. The new work schedule not only begins before dawn but introduces specialization by consolidating tasks and responsibilities.

Many students who participate actively in environmental politics and national political campaigns ignore institutional labor practices that might be expected to generate locally focused dissent. Activist students on most campuses are more likely to protect the rights of workers in the developing world than those of college custodial workers or adjuncts at their own colleges. Trying to understand this apparent disconnect, we’ve begun to wonder if growing emphasis on a virtual, electronic world in the classroom as well as beyond adds to the power of the new “hidden curriculum” we see in the business practices that define changes in personnel policies. As students come to our classrooms accustomed to multitasking with television, iPods, cell phones, and computers and their many variations, we’re encouraged to teach to their intellectual restlessness, or “hyper attention,” instead of helping them to discover the value of focused contemplation, the “deep attention” that makes possible acts of imagination and a sense of connection to the college community.

Growing numbers of our introductory-level students write more vivid, thoughtful prose under time pressure in class than they do with leisure to revise outside of class. They show connections between insights they find in the reading and ideas and examples we’ve discussed in earlier classes. They explore links between their own experience and ideas drawn from their reading. They make illuminating comparisons, using concrete, lively language. This isn’t an altogether new phenomenon. In the past we’ve had very good students who appeared to censor their most interesting ideas and language on out-of-class writing assignments, but it used to be unusual for students to fuse ideas, images, and examples into an inventive whole more effectively in these brief classroom assignments than in longer, presumably more reflective writing out of class.

One key to our students’ recent writing successes in the classroom, we believe, is the silence that settles on the room. The writing process outside of class appears to be a very different story. Most of the time students work on computers that signal when they get e-mail. Perhaps it is tempting to follow “friends” updates on Facebook. Even when there’s no signal, students admit to being tempted to check their incoming mail and inventory their ever-increasing numbers of electronic friends. They receive signals on cell phones, too, for calls and texts. Some students listen to music on iPods while they work. As college libraries strive to be “user-friendly,” we see students managing sandwiches and drinks along with various electronic devices while they work on essays. They are, as they explain it, multitasking, a classic corporate skill.

Colleges and universities were established in part to provide the communal stimuli crucial to fostering acts of imagination. Students at a residential college are more deeply embedded in actual community than they are likely to be at any other time in their lives, but walking with others on campus they are as apt to be talking or texting on a phone as conversing with their actual companions, seemingly as present to someone distant from them as to their physical neighbors. We wonder if relying heavily on an abstract electronic “community” leads to a sense of placelessness. And if virtual places become more important than actual places in colleges and universities, it may be more difficult to imagine the consequences of something like the oil spill in the Gulf. Even with minute-to-minute access to powerful images and quantifiable data, it may be harder to find powerful metaphors and cultural understanding in a placeless world.

One result of encouraging a culture of multitasking and reliance on virtual community is that students are increasingly isolated from the people and places where they study. This technological abstraction may be equally common among faculty members who struggle to keep up with their workloads and professional obligations. People juggling texts and calls and tweets and e-mails might be compared with executives trying to establish order and profitability in companies flying out of control. They are showered with mediated versions of life itself from many directions at once.

There are many ironies in the triumph of corporate practice at educational institutions in this time of financial crisis, when our Supreme Court is bent on increasing the power of corporations. Like companies that fire the most recently hired when they fall on hard times and a country that lets a small proportion of its citizens pay the price for wars it chooses to fight, our most privileged colleges seem prepared to place the burden of their money problems on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. The message implicit in such policies, the hidden curriculum, speaks quietly to students of a college’s determination to protect privilege even when it means placing limits on the development of minds. Perhaps a crucial role of education in our time is to show young people the joys and benefits of giving focused, contemplative attention to the people around them and the places where they live, as well as the varied subjects they study.

Judith Nichols and William Nichols
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Judith Nichols is adjunct associate professor at Vassar College, where she has been teaching writing and literature for 20 years. William Nichols, a retired professor and administrator at Denison University, is visiting professor of writing at Dartmouth College. Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker for 30 years. She is an adjunct lecturer at Vassar.

Money, Money, Money

Whether the title of this article brings to mind Cabaret’s emcee and Sally singing "Money makes the world go round," or the Abba lyrics "All the things I could do if I had a little money; It’s a rich man’s world," or the O’Jays' "Money, money, money, money, MONEY," or Pink Floyd’s "Money," the word money probably enters your thoughts frequently. How is it that most of us work for nonprofit organizations, such as public universities, and yet, increasingly, money considerations seem to pervade everything? As Jim Collins put it in his 2005 monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors, in nonprofits "the critical question is … 'How can we develop a sustainable resource engine to deliver superior performance relative to our mission?'" There is no guarantee that access to resources will result in excellence, but excellence is impossible without access to resources. Therefore we all spend a great deal of time focusing on money: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to use it.

Money is particularly on the minds of those of us at the City University of New York this year because it is not a good year for New York State financially and next year is predicted to be worse. CUNY students need money to stay in and be successful at college — approximately one-third come from families whose income is below the official poverty level of $22,050 per year for a family of four. CUNY campuses need money to provide a quality education for students. It is no wonder that we focus so much on money. But that same focus, so important if we are to have sufficient resources to attain excellence, can have very unfortunate consequences. A focus on money can entice you to take actions that seem useful in the short term but can be harmful in the long term.

All species, including humans, are likely to choose short-term gains (impulsiveness) over larger, but more delayed, gains. There are many possible reasons for this behavior, but in general they have to do with the low probability of ever receiving the larger, more delayed gain. In the case of higher education administrators, this devaluing of delayed events can occur because the administrator has learned that promised large gains often never appear and/or because the administrator does not expect to be in his/her current position by the time the delayed event would occur. The American Council on Education's recent survey of chief academic officers showed that there is, for example, a lot of turnover among the members of this group; the mean number of years the respondents had been in their current positions was only 4.7. Some administrators, thinking only about the next job up the ladder, are quite shortsighted. Long-term chief executive officers, such as CUNY’s chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, who has served in his position since 1999, are not common.

Enrollment management provides an example of how in hard times a focus on immediate money can trip up shortsighted university administrators. First consider tuition discounting. When times are financially tough, prospective students are more likely to choose a college or university that is less expensive. This means that non-elite private colleges and universities (ones with relatively high listed tuition but without long waiting lists) need to discount their tuition more steeply in order to continue to compete successfully with public colleges and universities. In some cases, these private colleges and universities may enroll sufficient students for a given year, but enroll them at such a low tuition that the institution cannot be sustained over the long term.

An additional enrollment management example concerns public universities that are funded by their states on a per-student basis. In such a situation, enrolling more students means receiving more money, and therefore many presidents under those conditions will continuously seek out more students. However, too often the additional money proves insufficient to provide more than a barely adequate education. In other words, the more students the university enrolls, the lower the quality of the education. In such a situation, as enrollment grows, the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty deteriorates along with student support services, while class size grows. Yet some presidents will keep seeking more students so that their budgets will grow. Even if a university does have enough money to grow without harming quality, that does not necessarily mean that the university will actually maintain its quality as it grows. Hiring high-quality faculty and expanding high-quality student support services can be extremely time consuming and difficult, in addition to being expensive. Additional revenue arrives virtually immediately, but the negative consequences of the quick growth are delayed and are therefore discounted.

Still other ways in which short-term money considerations can trip up higher education relate to estimating costs. Colleges and universities, to be successful and make good choices, in addition to obtaining resources, must obtain good information about costs. Toward this end, many universities will calculate how much they spend per enrolled student, and these calculations are often made for different disciplines as well as for the university as a whole. However, ultimately, this is not the best way of estimating the university’s costs, because ultimately the output of the university is not an enrolled student but a graduate. What needs to be calculated is the cost per graduated student, perhaps even the cost per successful graduated student, though that would be much more difficult to measure. The university needs to consider many years of data to do any of these calculations appropriately, which may be difficult if administrators are changing relatively rapidly.

As another example, when times are tough, colleges and universities often start looking for additional sources of revenue. Facilities can be rented, programs can be offered for high school students, and sites can be established in distant countries. Often such ventures turn out just fine, yielding immediate, as well as long-term, much-needed additional funds. But, sometimes, unexpected costs reveal themselves only over the long term, including the cost of time and attention taken away from the central mission of the institution. The auditorium cannot be used by a theater course because an outside group has rented it, full-time faculty are devising curricula for courses for the high school students while the university’s 20-year-old core curriculum goes unreviewed, and the university’s legal office is tied up in discussions about labor laws at the university’s international site. Such considerations must be carefully balanced against any revenue received.

There are many other examples of how higher education administrators may focus on short-term costs to the long-term detriment of the institution. Some new facilities, such as a science building, will not have many initial maintenance costs, but by the 20th year will require significant amounts of funds in order to keep the building in good shape. New program costs can also accelerate greatly in the long term. Consider a special baccalaureate program that provides students with free tuition and a stipend for four years, starts with 50 freshmen in its first cohort, and builds to 200 freshmen in the fourth year. That means that the full costs of the program will not be revealed until the eighth year of the program, when fully 800 students will be enrolled in it in the freshman through senior years.

Short-term and long-term considerations may be at the root of some of public higher education’s basic funding problems. State legislators must deal with many short-term concerns when deciding how funds are to be allocated. Such concerns may at times be not conducive to the best long-term health of public universities. Tuition increases may be too large, too small, or sporadic. Further, over time, state and city funding has constituted a lower percentage of public universities’ budgets, while a higher percentage has consisted of tuition. It is for reasons such as these that CUNY’s Chancellor Matthew Goldstein convened a fall 2010 summit on the funding of public universities.

Legislators and administrators are not the only actors in the higher education drama that can sometimes appear to have short time horizons, focusing on immediate concerns. Students, by and large, also have a relatively short time horizon because they will remain at the institution for only a relatively brief period of time. Only faculty, some nonteaching staff, and members of the Board of Trustees are consistently likely to have long-term time horizons regarding the university. In that fact lies a very real justification for the concept of shared governance at universities, a concept that is unfortunately resisted by so many administrators.

Students are not immune to a short-term focus on money that can cause later harm to the quality of a university’s education. In the special baccalaureate program described above, suppose that high school seniors are asked to commit to that program in order to receive the four years of tuition and stipends. High school students may make a choice to enroll in that program based on the resulting short-term benefits, but it is a choice that constrains their ability to explore other areas of higher education. In some cases, in the long-term they might have been better off leaving their options open. More generally, the tendency of students to purchase unessential goods using credit cards, and of working for immediate cash while enrolling in fewer credits rather than taking out student loans and enrolling in more credits and graduating faster, are well-known additional examples of students focusing too much on immediate money. As still another example, students at public universities may oppose tuition increases, even though those increases are designed to meliorate state budget cuts, and keeping tuition flat will cause sections or even programs to be canceled, resulting in students taking more time to graduate and thus gaining access to a well-paying job.

Finally, despite their long-term presence at the university, and although they may often have the long-term interests of the university at heart, even faculty can sometimes succumb to short-term interests when it comes to money. Faculty are generally expected to perform their duties in the nine months ranging from about the beginning of September to the end of May, and as such are frequently considered nine-, and not twelve-, month employees. Yet some colleges and universities give faculty the option, and some faculty take the option, of receiving their pay over twelve months so as not to be tempted to spend all of their annual pay in the first three-quarters of the year. As another example involving faculty, due to time or other short-term considerations, some faculty may resist learning new ways of delivering their course material, such as how to combine face-to-face and online approaches (resulting in what are called hybrid courses). A faculty member might, say, teach an overload course for extra money rather than spend time reconfiguring his or her current courses as hybrids. However, such an approach could end up losing a faculty member some student enrollment, in addition to his or her students possibly learning less, with neither of these long-term outcomes reflecting well on the faculty member. Therefore choosing to spend time in this way could, ultimately, negatively affect the faculty member’s promotion, tenure, and/or salary.

These situations of impulsiveness and self-control involve people choosing between something less good that is available sooner, and something better that is available later. When times are tough, as they are now, impulsiveness can increase. Choosing sooner, smaller amounts of money can be adaptive when, if you do not get some money quickly, your college or university will not survive more than a couple of years. Choosing sooner, smaller amounts of money can also be adaptive for administrators — though not their universities — in other short-term horizon situations, such as administrators looking for higher positions who need additional infusions of funds for their favorite legacy projects. Whatever the exact reasons, a scarcity of money can end up having negative effects far beyond a lack of funding for some particular activities. Our focus on money will never, can never, go away, and neither will our tendency to be tempted by short-term gains. But particularly during these lean times, we must educate ourselves and others about the need to focus on money for the long-, and not just the short-, term. Then, perhaps, we will be able to make our world go around a little faster and a little further.

Alexandra W. Logue
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Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York. She is also a professor of psychology at Queens College.


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