What Higher Education Administrators do not Understand about Budget Cuts and Furloughs

The poet Walt Whitman, visiting army hospitals along the Potomac River in 1862, came upon “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart,” hospital waste of soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. Amputation was a last resort to save the life of a human being. Likewise, institutions find themselves forced to cut away appendages to save the core body.

I was a professor at a small liberal arts college that has for many years been facing institutional death due to financial disaster. Often, the approach of administrators to financial crises is to amputate the limbs—by means of budget cuts, retirement cuts, and furloughs—of those who sustain the body of the college: the faculty.

The administration, because they are paid to do so, and have a worldview that is increasingly separate from the day to day job of interacting with students in the classroom, devise strategies, plans, budgets, forecasts, and so on, by which to anticipate how many students will attend, what the retention and graduation rates will be, and how to keep the institution afloat. All the while the teacher engages the student in the sine qua non of higher education: thinking, learning, reading, writing, analyzing, hypothesizing, concluding, growing.

To keep the body alive sometimes requires amputation. But the quality of life diminishes over time. If there is an alternative to drastic cuts, perhaps the quality of educational life will not be sacrificed according to the mentality of “the end justifies the means”.

I am a historian. The value of historical study is that it provides a long term perspective of the past to the present, which often helps suggest guidance for the future. The history of my experience in higher education convinces me how wrong-headed the modern administrative approach to college education is, and how colleges can save the limbs along with the body to continue to grow into the future.

The small private college where I taught once had a modest endowment, but no more. The college is completely tuition driven, and has to compete with a variety of less expensive state schools in the region. At one time the college was directed by an outside missionary organization with a clear sense of purpose. But a half century ago, the college was turned over to an independent board of trustees that had more flexibility in decision-making but lacked the same mission-centered drive, and had far fewer resources. Henceforth, the college has limped along, remarkably able to open its doors every year, but lacking the financial resources to make disinterested decisions to put higher education above the ever-present concern of “keeping out of the red.”

Like many small colleges, athletics and professional programs have come to dominate the once single-minded concern to graduate students with a good liberal arts education. Athletic programs (such as football) keep the doors open, though of (apparent) necessity athletics must come before academics. This is an unworkable situation for a college. It is like increasing debt: as the debt and interest rates rise the debtor can scarcely get out of debt without taking on more. As the college grows ever more dependent on athletics it can scarcely rid itself of this non-academic encumbrance and indeed must continue to recruit and take on more. As more college resources go toward athletic programs and staff, academics by comparison suffer.

Likewise, the old liberal arts focus of the college slowly became lost in a morass of income-generating professional programs. Students were taught that a degree in business or nursing would get them a job fast. Whether or not students would be educated people who loved learning throughout their lifetime, contributing to a larger society with their thoughts and ideas, became a secondary concern.

This small college trying to make ends meet has had no realistic, workable strategic plan. Such a plan must be based on set, established academic programs that are consistent and comparable in order to attract a pool of students. Caught between professional and academic programs, something like a split personality has developed, and the tug-of-war between professional programs and academic programs has led to a Robert Frost situation of facing two paths in a wood without knowing which to take. A college that focuses its resources on athletics and professional (job-getting) programs sacrifices academic programs that can prepare students for graduate school; hence top-notch students who want to pursue academics beyond the bachelors degree eschew such a place. A college that has a shotgun approach to majors will find it hard pressed to attract serious students—hence the reliance upon athletics. There are many professional schools all over the region that compete with this small private school’s professional programs; the state school programs cost less, hence bring in more students.

The keys to college success are not athletics, clubs, stylish dorms, a wonderful dining experience. Success resides in the faculty. Faculty have to feel invested, central to planning and decision making, because they are the ones who ultimately can attract students and bring students forward to degree completion to ensure continuous successful enrollment, year after year. College administrators typically embrace a top down administrative model in which faculty are very little, and rarely, directly involved.

Rather, faculty must be equal to the administration in terms of planning and decision-making because the faculty, in their day-to-day interaction with students—and not the administration—are ultimately in charge of academics. This is why successful schools have some sort of means of embracing faculty and making them feel central to the academic experience without the fear of cut-backs, demotions, furloughs, reduction of benefits. Students do not after all obtain a degree in football or debate club. Faculty must feel invested and central to the college without having to fear for their jobs. Successful schools have active and forthright faculty governance that is engaged equally to the administration.

In time anesthetics, cleanliness, and antibiotics allowed for fewer limbs to be severed from mangled soldiers’ bodies. The discovery of long-term approaches to health, rather than short-term techniques to save a life, meant that people survived to live longer and happier. Likewise, in higher education institutions, the short-term solution of making the annual enrollment goal at the expense of the body’s many appendages might allow for another year of survival, yet the quality of the experience will always suffer until the end.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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