Dollars and Sense

In the midst of an economic crisis, financial literacy programs at colleges around the country are expanding.

November 30, 2010

Over the summer I was fortunate to attend a symposium for department chairs. I was glad of the experience, and grateful to my institution's leaders that they supported me in this way. I was at a swanky hotel in a fabulous city (ironically, despite the recent economic turmoil). While I was there, it was a pleasure to talk to and hear from other department chairs from across the country. The speakers were generally well-qualified, experienced, and good presenters (although the perspective was what the chief academic officer expects of the chair — and we have other constituencies, after all).

But the thing that concerned me during the experience was the focus on … well, what was it? Fiscal responsibility? I can’t complain about fiscal responsibility — that wouldn’t make sense. I’m not so quixotic that I’d counsel running an institution into the red, but I kept getting the impression that our talks weren’t entirely about fiscal responsibility as much as they were about profit margins.

In one session we were taken through some cost implications of a variety of different class offerings. The underlying idea was that the more we fine-tuned our offerings to maximize seats in classes the stronger our program would appear to the chief academic officer, and the more likely we were to be well — the cynic in me wonders, "adequately"? — funded. So, instead of offering a couple of upper-level classes that catered to six students each (a reality in a lot of small colleges, and a net loss financially to the institution), if the program could tinker with the class scheduling to offer one class that catered to 12 (or more) students, there would be a net gain for the institution.

In English — like a lot of departments that have a service component — smaller, apparently esoteric, upper-level classes are generally far outweighed by the fully enrolled composition classes (and the program thus generates significant income that offsets occasional loss classes). Still, I could still see the merits of creative scheduling. Obviously the higher the student yield in each class, the better the financial implications. So, the session was thought-provoking and challenging.

We are sometimes guilty of thinking that schedules, rotations, and course offerings are set in stone. Like my students who sometimes think that the first draft of an essay is the best and only draft they need to write, I could see that perhaps I was sometimes guilty of maintaining a status quo of class rotations that occasionally resulted in small upper-level classes where creative planning might create a program that was much more vigorous (though presumably with significantly less choice for students). We end up caught in a conflict between constituencies, between the CAO who would prefer one Shakespeare class with 12, and students (and perhaps faculty), who would probably prefer the choice of a Shakespeare seminar which might end up with six, and a Faulkner seminar with six.

Financially, the answer is straightforward, but the best situation for the institution is another matter, and a follow-up session worried me about the potential ramifications.

We were offered a scenario similar to this: Times are lean. A variety of departments are competing for a single tenure line. The English department has a prominent, and well-loved, Shakespearean scholar retiring. As chair, you must make a pitch for a new hire, and the chief academic officer has a penchant for fully enrolled classes (how unreasonable is that?). The broader context of the hire is that the business department is aggressively expanding its coverage of e-commerce, and the graphic design department wants to add writing certification to its web design classes. Only one hire is going to be authorized because of the economic situation. What is your pitch?

I have to admit that most of the room had little problem with this one. They came up with an English hire with expertise in e-writing and web publishing. The English department would get an interesting new hire: current, engaging, relevant to today’s students. The hire would also foster a dynamic interdisciplinary relationship with other schools, and the potential for cross-listed classes that would cater to a range of majors. The business department was happy, as was graphic design, and English had kept its tenure line. Everyone was happy and the CAO had a grin that rivaled the Cheshire cat. This was easy.

As a general rule, I would have been perfectly content with this kind of hire under different circumstances. I could see the benefits. I was/am excited by the current content, the interdisciplinary focus, the potential benefits to a variety of programs. But, at what cost? For me, the takeaway message here was that Shakespeare had had his day and I felt that an important line was being crossed.

It seemed to me that the very nature of the university was at stake somehow, and while most of the room was watching the numbers add up in an Excel spreadsheet, something important was being lost in the debit column. What is the role of the university, after all, and the officers of the university from the chief academic officer, to the dean, the chair and the faculty? To what, or to whom, are they answerable? Certainly they are responsible for the economic well-being of the institution. But isn’t there more to it?

Though perhaps it sounds like it, I'm not a snob. I worked for years in the community college system and was, for example, truly excited by the Harley Davidson repair certification program offered at one of my previous institutions. It was a genuinely cool program, and a terrific career opportunity for some students, and the state-of-the-art workshop looked amazing. I can see the merit of strong vocational offerings at the community college and the university, but is that the totality of the mission of the higher education tier? And are numbers the bottom line?

In the session I argued for the replacement of the Shakespearean scholar. It was a significant loss to the department, and one that would hurt the fundamentals of the program. I could see the benefits of the counter-proposal, and was broadly supportive of the rationale that came up with the web writer instead of the literature scholar. I suppose if I were more conciliatory I could have compromised and proposed a strong e-Shakespearean (no doubt they exist). But the implications of my choice were serious.

According to the strict parameters of the exercise, I had probably just lost my department a tenure line. But I had held strong to values that seemed worth it at the time. Perhaps it was an empty gesture, or a foolish one? I thought it was an intellectual position, a cultural role that was important to defend.

In the real world, and away from tricky seminars, the problems are just as profound, though the answers are seldom as obvious. What is certain, however, is that numbers play an increasingly important role in the shape of our departmental offerings. Though I wonder sometimes if the economic background is being used as an excuse to push through certain kinds of institutional reform, this one isn't likely to be going away, and it's our responsibility throughout the various levels of the university to examine our educational, intellectual and cultural responsibilities to our communities within the context of responsible fiscal management.


David Mulry is chair of English and foreign languages at Schreiner University.


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