Earlier this summer the U.S. government faced default and had its credit rating downgraded, convincing almost everyone that we have been living beyond our means — everyone, that is, except many educators. Even those who have been furloughed or had programs cut and workload increased typically blame the economy, the legislature or a political party. This article is about none of that. It’s about the system.
It’s time to smell the Starbucks and abandon the status quo that has cost colleagues their jobs, parents their bank accounts and students their future.
A glimpse of the past: Almost every institution embraced the core value of excellence — sometimes deservedly, sometimes not. But the real guiding principle for decades now has been growth, perhaps instilled in us by the federal government that funds so many of our operations, stimulates our budgets and underwrites tuition with grants and loans.
Inside the institution, the concept of growth is elephantine. Course catalogues are going entirely online not because of convenience but because of the cost of printing the ever-expanding content. Sequences aspire to departments, departments to schools, schools to colleges and branch campuses to free-standing universities.
To reform the institution so that it lives within its means, we will need courageous administrators and cooperative professors. They don’t have to reinvent the academic wheel; they just have to steer it in a more fiscally sound direction.
Here are 12 examples of common practices that inflate tuition, bloat payroll and persist during challenging economic times with a dozen proposals to nullify the status quo so that institutions may operate more efficiently and effectively in academic year 2012, trimming budgets, managing workload, and enhancing student retention and graduation rates.
1. Acknowledge curricular glut.
Status Quo: Create new courses and propose new degrees without removing existing ones from catalogues or dealing with duplication, being oblivious to how this growth affects professorial workload, student tuition and graduation rates.
Solution: Remind faculty members that curricular streamlining decreases workload, frees more time for research to meet promotion and tenure requirements, and allows more one-on-one advising to help student retention. After the reminder, mandate a curricular review to discern which units keep adding to the catalogue, creating sequences and tracks, increasing degree requirements or otherwise inflating pedagogies. Those units should cut excess curricula within one year or risk losing positions or having their budgets cut accordingly so as to force streamlining.
2. Stop program duplication.
Status Quo: Approve courses in digital communication, popular culture and multimedia offered by multiple departments so as to attract non-major enrollment and generate credit hours. Endorse degrees with narrow subject matters, such as “environmental chemistry,” believing that every unit should determine its curricula and partake in innovation and specialization.
Solution: Require each academic unit to create a “Program Responsibility Statement,” specifying curricular and pedagogical areas so as to prevent program overlap. Example: “Journalism and communication produces content across media platforms (digital, print, visual, broadcast, advertising, public relations, science communication, etc.) targeting audience and preparing students to produce work for hire.” Such a document should outline what pedagogical areas fall under the umbrella of each unit, thereby informing curriculum committees so that courses already in the catalogue by one unit are not duplicated by another.
3. Demand curricular reform.
Status Quo: Approve new courses based on pedagogical arguments rather than on available resources and allow senior professors to continue teaching outdated topics such as "Darkroom Photography" or "Mechanical Drawing." Permit teaching centers to advocate for the latest technology without assessing effectiveness or cost, encouraging professors to create courses for each new application or device in the untested belief that technology engages students. Propose new or experimental courses for timely topics often based on fads and trends hyping but not delivering innovation.
Solution: Verify that a new course proposal does not duplicate an existing class and that sufficient resources are available to schedule it on a regular basis. Evaluate the cost of technology such as clickers and determine whether it actually enhances learning by assessing outcomes empirically. Introduce new applications and technologies into existing courses, rather than create new or experimental ones that may be outdated in a few years (Second Life) or commonplace (Facebook). Use the rubrics of seminars, workshops and independent studies for timely topics, rather than propose new or experimental courses that need to be scheduled and staffed on a regular basis.
4. Use the teaching budget for teaching.
Status Quo: Request funds from deans when faculty or staff vacancies occur to be deposited in a unit’s supplemental budget and then use part of those funds for travel and professional development rather than for instruction.
Solution: Raise benefactor money for travel and professional development. Don’t use supplemental budget for those purposes because that impedes student degree progress and adds to faculty workload in as much as more courses need to be staffed. Enforcing this is how deans and provosts earn their pay, sanctioning spending policies that foster student degree progress. Ignoring this means administrators have to come up with “bridge money” so that units can still operate from one semester to the next.
5. Revise budget models.
Status Quo: Endorse resource management models that typically overlook streamlined units whose pedagogies ensure timely graduation rates. Overemphasize student credit hours rather than number of majors, providing cover for small departments with few majors that use adjuncts or graduate assistants to teach general education while professors specialize in arcane topics.
Solution: Revise budget models to recognize timely graduation or establish a provost-level mechanism to reward programs with high four-year rates. Invest in units qualifying as destination majors, attracting high school students. Without majors of the largest programs, small departments specializing in general education would have fewer students generating those credit hours.
6. Change hiring, and promotion and tenure policies.
Status Quo: Use adjuncts or teaching assistants in introductory courses such as composition or beginning math so that senior professors can teach specialties within their degrees. Recruit hires on the promise they can develop their own courses based on narrow research topics and reward continuing professors in Promotion and Tenure for new course creation.
Solution: Hire adjuncts only when faculty members lack experience or expertise in a subjectand assign your best professors to teach large introductory classes so they can recruit new majors to your program. Require new hires to teach within the current curriculum and revisit P&T policies, recognizing innovation within existing pedagogies.
7. Restrict non-major enrollment.
Status Quo: Allow students minoring in your discipline to take core or skills classes and other units to require those courses in their own degree programs, effectively creating substandard portfolios or faux expertise in a discipline.
Solution: Funnel non-majors into large introductory and concept classes, preventing them from claiming seats in small required courses so as to safeguard degree progress for your majors and reduce the number of sections being offered each term.
8. Simplify degree requirements.
Status Quo: Keep adding courses to the degree program and increasing the number of hours needed to graduate even though the institution may only require a dozen fewer credits for a diploma. Require pre-requisites for 200- and 300-level courses by adding prefixes and suffixes, such as “Beginning,” “Intermediate” and “Advanced” Economics or Biology “I, II, and III”—often artifacts of an institution that switched in the past from quarters to semesters but also didn’t reduce curricula for the longer academic term.
Solution: Decrease the number of credits needed for the degree and create a curriculum with basic components: cornerstone courses that build a foundation, core courses that expand on that foundation, and capstone courses that prepare students for the workplace or graduate study. Reduce the number of prerequisites for electives and eliminate “intermediate” levels, thereby creating rigor. This ensures that courses have sufficient enrollment and allows for classes to be scheduled in periodic rotation rather than each semester.
9. Eliminate silos.
Status Quo: Create non-official degrees by building curricula around sequences, emphases, options and tracks. This adds to workload in addition to slowing graduation rates because required courses often must be taken in sequence.
Solution: Eliminate the silos of sequences, emphases, options and tracks. If it’s not on the degree, don’t build curricula around it. Revamp courses so as to include components of former silos. For instance, in media classes, require each course to address print, broadcast and Internet rather than build classes around each platform.
10. Require faculty advising.
Status Quo: Hire academic advisers and allow professors to shirk responsibility for knowing the curricula, keeping office hours and meeting with students one-on-one.Allow the institution to handle new student orientation rather than deal with high school students making the transition to college life.
Solution: Require professors to do academic advising, spending more face time rather than Facebook time with students so as to ensure a good retention rate and timely graduation. Professors who resist can teach an additional class.Schedule an orientation workshop for transfer and first-year students, requiring undergraduate plans of study before the sophomore year. This increases four-year graduation rates and gives students a sense of destination.
Status Quo: Allow departments with few majors to hire staff, appoint administrators, use credit cards and add courses to the catalogue to earn a degree for which there is neither need nor demand. Retain professors not by paying them the salary that they deserve but by offering them directorships in institutes and centers that fail to win grants and serve only as pricey showcases for popular causes or scientific trends. Maintain the institution’s archaic organizational structure at all costs.
Solution: Consolidate small programs into departments or schools of humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Professors can teach general education to other majors with the emphasis on critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning in a multicultural world. Terminate institutes and grants that fail to produce results.
12. Cut administration.
Status Quo: Mandate institutional change only at the professorial level and maintain the same number administrators, especially at the college level.
Solution: New operations cannot run on old administrative engines. Limit associate deanships to three per college: budget, curriculum and research.
The status quo may have worked or even benefitted students in better economic times. But those times have ended and a new era of fiscal responsibility has begun. If budgets improve, methods to streamline should not cease because the new challenge then will be reducing student tuition.
Michael Bugeja is the director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Although his budget has been cut 24 percent over the past three years, faculty workload has not increased, research productivity reached record levels in 2010, and students graduated in a timely manner with a 95 percent job placement rate within six months. He teaches 180 pre-majors in two journalism orientation classes.
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
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.
How do furloughs work for educators? Let me be clear: I am both happy and thankful for being invited onto the tenure track my first go-around, given the precarious economic situation and academic job market in 2008-9. I’ve taken very little for granted in the past year or so. What could I possibly have to complain about? Working conditions are not hazardous — well, outside of faculty meetings at least. Many of us have relative autonomy — that is, when no one is looking. We ultimately get paid to pursue issues and topics that we enjoy. Wall Street folks feel justified in their gripes over new regulations and a 3 percent increase in their marginal tax rate, despite making money hand over fist. Maybe we can offer a humble university professor some license to complain … about furloughs.
This is the third year in a row my university is subject to furlough plans; there is no consensus on whether there will be a fourth. The current plans are progressive, which means that the amount of furloughed time is directly proportional to one's salary. In my case, as a new faculty member, I must relinquish roughly a week’s worth of time and pay. The furlough concept vexes me for two reasons. At first — less so now that I am in my second year — it was a bitter pill to swallow when I crept out of graduate school, making practically nothing for some of the work that I do now, and hearing at one of my first faculty meetings that I was already getting a pay cut. Just when I was about to draw a steady paycheck, there was discussion of taking money away. Having never worked for state government, the furlough concept was completely foreign to me. I grappled with the idea that as a professor, I was an employee of the state, and therefore subject to furloughs. When a sanitation worker goes on furlough, trash doesn’t get picked up. We all see that, and it’s a highly visible and olfactive inconvenience.
As a professor I was informed that the furloughs must impact academics as little as possible, which I completely understand. Yet, with the explicit prohibition on canceling class, skipping a faculty meeting, or slashing committee appointments, all of my so-called furloughs encompassed the multitude of tasks that I complete in private. This includes planning, grading, answering e-mail messages, reading, writing, research activities, professional meetings, and reviewing manuscripts or proposals. No dignified or obvious public response is permissible. Not one person feels the impact or the insult of furloughs other than the individual faculty members. It is also true that few faculty members will actually refrain from any of the above activities during a mandated furlough day because that’s just twice the amount of grading or e-mail messages that have to be dealt with the next day.
The second problem with the furlough (read: pay cut) scenario has a lot to do with my former life as a public school teacher. This is why I might be more offended by the requirement to not only take the pay cut, but also track the exact days on which I supposedly slough off to "earn" it. No one ever understood my job as a teacher except for those who actually taught. To many, our job consisted of roughly six or so hours of hanging out with a bunch of kids. We do that for several months, are given generous breaks in between, and we have the entire summer off to travel, mow the lawn, and basically waste our nation’s valuable tax dollars doing nothing.
I can appreciate how people have this view; it’s a difficult myth to dispel. If anyone took the time to really examine what goes on behind the scenes, or if teachers were actually given a voice to speak out, one would see a person lugging stacks of notebooks home on a daily basis. More stacks of books and binders would go home on weekends. They’d see teachers going in sick to work because it’s too much trouble to call in a sub. Parents undermine your judgment at almost every turn, you can’t use the restroom for hours at a time, lunch lasts for 20 minutes and largely consists of leftovers or snacks in the fabulously accommodated teachers’ lounge, and all the while you have to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy that chips away at your professional autonomy.
So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.
What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate. As an aside, I admire faculty members who are able to take a stand, put an outgoing message in their e-mail, stating that they are on furlough and will not answer messages today because they are indeed on furlough. I wish I could exercise a little self-control and actually take a day off here and there. As a new faculty member, I just don’t have that luxury. The demands to publish, research, and stay current with the latest and greatest teaching gadgets and techniques are too great.
Let us call it what it is: a pay cut, not a furlough. The latter concept cannot apply to educators unless we can furlough our public duties. Dealing the blow within our private responsibilities — in our offices, at home, or away at meetings — reads as if these duties are not as valuable. Because they do not generate revenue explicitly, private functions like reading, writing, and research are expendable. But in similar ways in my public school teaching, there would be no teaching — no effective teaching — without all that educators do behind the scenes. Without a furlough of our public duties, no one can understand the message and the impact of budget cuts. Educators take the hit in silence, and it is this lack of defense of our private duties that perpetuates the myth in the general public that educators have none. We clock in, teach our students, and then clock out.
It’s hard for me to criticize furlough plans because I know people are losing their jobs. Perhaps my pay cut, combined with all the others, will save a few jobs here and there. I’m happy to do that, if that is indeed what I’m doing. If I make it hard for students and parents who are paying more for my services than ever, they just won’t come back, or they will pursue their education elsewhere. Long term: that’s not good for business.
When I complain about pay cuts or furloughs, I end up feeling like a selfish jerk afterward. But universities are dropping the ball in their handling of furloughs and pay cuts. There’s a considerable amount of resentment and suspicion of administration due to the precarious economic situation. In order to alleviate tensions, the leadership could acknowledge faculty as they get stiffed. Would there be harm in canceling just one meeting? How about free parking passes for faculty or free meals on campus, assuming that eating on campus is a pleasurable experience? I won’t even get into deferred compensation plans, but that’s also a good option.
There are numerous potential gestures out there that could be easily seen as a tip of the cap to our troubles. If teaching and other official duties are deemed sacrosanct, even though a host of other requirements are intensified, something will eventually have to give. Until furloughs or pay cuts explicitly affect what occurs in the classroom, the shift of the burden to the private realm, as has happened with K-12 teachers, will force the issue further underground and out of the public eye. Educators of all stripes and levels will continue doing the same job, but for less and less.
Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.
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
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.