Sleepless in Academic Affairs

To get through today's economic travails and what's to come, writes Jeff Abernathy, college administrators -- working closely with their faculties -- must try things they've never done before.
September 24, 2009

Some fellow deans and I have noticed that when faculty conversations turn to administrative travel, there’s a curious split. A good number of our faculty colleagues suspect that we go jetting off to Cabo San Lucas, to luxuriate in radiant warmth amidst drained snifters of cognac and the fragrant waft of smuggled cigars.

By and large, those are the ones who like us.

Others suspect a furtive rendezvous with Lord Vader and Emperor Palpatine arranged so as to advance our plans to crush the rebel departments and rule unchallenged.

Those are the ones who think like us.

I jest. Alas, the reality of my own conference travel is, by contrast, so dull as to explain the persistent rumor that deans suffer disproportionately from narcolepsy. The average experience comes down to a January day in Calgary, where I'm left to choose between such enriching topics as “Formative Assessment as Instructional Practice” and “Meeting the Challenge of Deferred Maintenance in a Constrained-Endowment Environment” (here I have to say that only a career change to administrative work could have made me pine for an MLA panel on, say, poststructural critiques of the Victorian nautical drama).

But there are some payoffs. It was at just such a gathering a few months back that I joined a troubling discussion on a simple question:

“Amid international economic collapse, what keeps you up at night?”

The room -- packed with we former starry eyed types who had entered academic administration to pursue the dream of strengthening the academy -- reported on the nightmare of slashing budgets (sometimes by a third), layoffs (sometimes by the dozen) and closing academic departments (sometimes their own). But of all the answers, the hardest to hear was one of the last:

“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst yet.”

Thoughts about that possibility kept me up nights all summer.

In the end, though, it isn't the prospect that we might fail to make conventional changes in response to new economic realities that worries me.

My real concern is that we will cling to the status quo rather than bring the creative energy of our talented faculty to re-imagine our goals for student learning and the nature of faculty work. That conversation is one we in academe must have -- apart from the present crisis -- if we are to serve the nation and the world in ways that will meet present needs. It may be that we in academe are collectively whistling past the graveyard in the hope that this crisis will pass in time for us to avoid transformative change.

Of course we must do the things we’ve always done to address financial exigency: trim budgets, cut expenses, pull back on maintenance, and the like. These conventional responses won’t guarantee that we will thrive, but they can buy us time to take the next step: trying initiatives that we’ve never tried before.

These new initiatives will bring no guarantees, either, but they can buy us time to take the critical step: we need to imagine a college that we’ve never been before and work to embody it.

We've taken the painful and practical steps to bring our budgets back into balance.

The challenge for deans in a budget crisis such as colleges across the country are facing now is clear: how to reduce the budget by five or ten percent while maintaining the elusive "excellence" that so often finds its way into presidential rhetoric? In the absence of genuine conversation across the campus, the conventional choices are clear enough. For our part at Augustana, even as we have completed two record years for the college, we are nonetheless cutting back on administrative costs, reducing funds for travel, and curtailing reassigned time.

But such measures won't create a sustainable college. Such actions, for campuses across the country, are a way station, not a destination. They’re unpleasant; they're occasionally productive; and they are merely expedients, buying us time.

But time for what?

At Augustana, we're using this time to try initiatives we’ve never tried before, and the early conversation is promising: amid demographic decline across our Middle West, we're seeking students through all manner of new partnerships -- with high schools, junior colleges, and peer colleges alike -- that we expect to improve student learning and reduce costs. We’re exploring opportunities, for example, to offer liberal education to local high school students who may not have encountered the kind of pedagogy we value most; we hope such outreach will result in more students for our college.

We're building revenue by developing a 12-month academic program through expanded summer offerings linked to our admissions effort. And we're offering majors that affirm our identity as a liberal arts college even as they speak to new areas of interest for today's high school students, such as environmental studies.

Ultimately, I've come to believe that these initiatives, valuable as they may be, still will not help us to create the model that will enable our college to thrive for the next century. The fundamental flaw in the budget cutting/revenue expansion model is that it remains grounded in a series of assumptions bequeathed to us by the academy of the 19th century. Those assumptions reflect the pedagogies and institutional expectations of another age. They constrain, rather than support, those of our own. And so we need to take a further step: to re-imagine what our college might be for students of the decades to come.

At Augustana, we're engaging faculty deeply in that conversation, asking colleagues to think creatively about how we will change in response to the challenges before us. For deans, this is the opportunity of a career: we now know we must reframe the work that we do in order to create a new model that will better serve our students and our communities alike even as it will sustain our institutions.

We might, for instance, seek to learn from years of assessment data that tell us that traditional classroom learning contributes only a fraction to student growth and learning in college. One result might be that we further our efforts to build connections between the traditional curriculum and the co-curriculum. We might imagine new partnerships with our community that will form a central place in our students' experience and that might help to revive struggling neighborhoods; at Augustana, we have forged a relationship with an elementary school in our neighborhood with just such a goal in mind.

I believe the answers to these questions will best come by engaging the faculty. The challenge for academic administrators these days ought to be how we might better utilize the creativity and imagination of our faculty so as to avoid these conventional approaches.

How can we enable faculty to take on an entrepreneurial approach to their work, such that the resources of the college are not seen as a bank account from which one draws funds but rather as an investment into which all must contribute for the greater good?

How can we bring the intellectual creativity of faculty to the hard questions that are before us?

Can we change the question from “How can we best manage budget cuts?” to “How can we make it again possible for bright students of moderate means to attend the college?”

I am hoping to start with some stakes in the ground:

Focus on student learning. The point seems obvious, but once the specter of budget cuts is raised, it will be difficult to focus on anything but finance. Deans and faculty alike need to focus first on the primary question of what our students are learning and how we know.

Take into account the ways new pedagogies affect faculty work. Over the last two decades, the faculty's work at liberal arts colleges has grown infinitely more complex. With the addition of undergraduate research, investigative labs, process writing assignments, intensive mentoring and advising, service learning, and a host of other pedagogical reforms, we are asking faculty to do more than ever. Often, such reforms have been added on to a curriculum that has remained essentially unchanged, so that demands on faculty have increased substantially.

Work as a team. The adage that curriculum is determined by faculty and finances by administrators is laughably false. It rests on the absurd premise that curriculum and budget can somehow be separated (if they could, I would advocate for Oxbridge style mentoring for each and every student, from freshman year on!).

Commit to completing the conversation. Too many dialogues are shut down every year on campuses because of the threat of divisiveness. If administrators want faculty to bring all of their creative energy to the table, they have to be prepared to arrive at answers they might not have expected. If faculty want to guide decisions about resources, they can't throw up their hands and suggest that they won't have a role in decisions that lead to actual reductions.

What would transformative change look like? Every college and university will have a different answer. At Augustana, we hope to find ways to deepen student learning through the experiential pedagogies that the faculty have made a priority over the past two decades while easing the burden of the new methods on faculty. We hope to build on our efforts to connect a traditional liberal arts curriculum with vibrant and exciting careers, while helping students to see that a vocation -- or calling, in Martin Luther's sense of the word -- is considerably more vast than career. We hope to find ways to extend their learning in blended learning environments that have just begun to take shape on the horizon for academe.

Of course we can't be sure that our approach to the conversation will yield the sort of transformative change we seek. At Augustana, we are just starting to ask hard questions about how we will sustain our strength for the years ahead. I do know that 180 of the brightest people I know are turning back to the foundations of our community to study what we do best, what we know deeply about ourselves, and what we might be in the years to come.

Once we get that figured out, I'll return to the underrated charms of subzero Calgary for a good night's sleep.


Jeff Abernathy is dean of the college at Augustana College, in Illinois.


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