Monday, August 07, 2017


This Is What We Call a “Red Flag”

[R]ather than being asked to change their ways, full-time faculty members are simply phased out over time.
This sentence passed virtually unnoticed about a third of the way through an IHE story about a survey it had done of college and university financial officers.  To me, it jumped off the screen.

The finance officers addressed a number of strategies for preserving their institutions in light of financial and enrollment pressures.  They range from the unobjectionable -- energy efficiency, economies of scale in certain back-office functions -- to the conspicuous, like mergers and campus closures.  They named a number of constituencies from which they solicit input, including trustees, senior administrators, and the community.

But they’re starting to give up on faculty.  Having heard nothing useful but plenty of condemnation from that quarter, they’re isolating it and essentially consigning it to hospice.  

That’s instrumentally rational and substantively shocking.  

As a short-term move, I can see the reasoning.  Full-time faculty are expensive and specialized.  Their input on financial decisions is often reflective of only getting one part of the picture, and can be vitriolic.  After a while, it becomes easier just to appease the incumbents and let attrition do the dirty work.  After all, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge a tenured professor, but easy not to replace one who leaves.  Over time, the incumbents will gradually become less relevant.

Over time, of course, there’s a real concern about academic quality.  But for most finance officers, that registers as relatively abstract.  In the battle between this year’s deficit, which is very real, and yet another round of “the sky is falling!” from the usual suspects, I can see the temptation to focus on the problem that’s actually solvable.  

From an academic perspective, the solution seems obvious.  If we care about maintaining the full-time faculty role in any significant numbers, full-time faculty need to get involved in discussions of the business model.  That’s different from protesting to bring back a golden age, or just screaming at trustees.  It means engaging seriously with the long-term drivers of cost and revenue, and applying those critical thinking skills to find solutions.  It means being willing to entertain the possibility of doing things differently.

That’s not just wishful thinking; it has been done.  The Accelerated Learning Program at the Community College of Baltimore County -- acknowledged nationally as a breakthrough in improving success rates for students who placed into remediation -- reconceives the instructor’s role in a way that improves student completion rates.  It was developed by faculty in the English department.  The Z-degree -- an all-OER degree with zero textbook cost -- at Tidewater Community College was a faculty initiative.  Odessa College went to short semesters to survive, and discovered that student success rates improved for every subgroup of students, and at minimal cost.  The faculty took a leading role.

There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit for interested faculty to examine.  They’re in a unique position to look at the merits of different forms of scheduling, different methods of advising, and new sorts of “nudges” to help students stay on task.  (My son’s high school gives every teacher access to a group texting app with which they remind students of upcoming exams or paper due dates.  I’ve actually heard TB exclaim, upon reading a text, “Oh, @#$#, I have to study!”)  They’re on the front lines with students, seeing and hearing when systems break down.  Many have experience in different types of institutions, with different business models.  And as a group, they’re awfully smart.  I hate to leave all that intelligence untapped.

Some may take being ignored as a short-term win; it means they can do what they’ve always done, relatively undisturbed.  But it’s a truism in business that you know you’re in trouble when people stop asking what you think.  Once you’ve been consigned to irrelevance, it’s a long way back.  Even worse, some seem to relish the irrelevance, calculating that they can run out the clock before everything collapses.  

The fact that many college finance officers admit moving from “engagement” to “containment” is a gigantic red flag for faculty.  I hope they don’t miss it.  

All I can say is, "Yep." And also note that this is not relegated to just higher ed. I agree, many great ideas have come from faculty who are engaged in building the health of the institution or hell, just taking a risk on trying something different. I've seen and heard out loud that first sentence you write.
Before I get rolling, did you see the story about Georgia Tech's success with a large on-line class for intro to computer science? Which was developed by what is practically the lowest of the low, a full-time untenured instructor? Really interesting. That class has what few of our on-line classes have, a true economy of scale because of some innovative software that instructor wrote. Now to your subject, except I'll note that no CFO would have ever consulted that instructor!

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Possibly, apropos one of your recent blog posts, an inability to communicate.

What are the odds that a university -- let alone a community college -- financial officer was hired for communication skills? Zero. So they fail to communicate anything about the state of the college's finances to the faculty, and possibly even to the President. After all, what are the odds that the President was hired for the ability to "teach" finance to the college's constituencies? Close to zero. And if you have looked at college budgets in the form they are given to the Trustees, well, you know that the mandated reporting categories make almost no sense at all. Trustees are along for the ride. They can't help.

One thing I looked for and didn't find (I speed read the article, so might have missed it) was how long those CFOs had been on their current campus. Ours has been here for less time than the President and the President has been here less time than most of the faculty. We've had more turnover there than in many other areas. Worse, asking administrators for advice is a poor move if they also don't know very much about the details of the college's operation at the classroom level. I frequently see highly inefficient decisions made by the right hand because it doesn't know what its left hand is doing.

Ah, if only our President had number sense and could "teach" the subject of the long-term and short-term changes in our budget, both income and outgo, with graphs and charts accessible to the English, Humanities, and Social Science faculty. But I've only seen one who could do that. It must be a rare skill. That one could get everyone on board when something needed to be done, and get ideas from everyone along the way.
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It sounds to me as though the CFOs are simply treating their universities as if they were corporations--which is to say, treating the employees with contempt and disdain. I fail to see how this could possibly be the fault of the faculty, and Dean Dad doesn't even really make that case, but rather just projects from his own frustrations...
I've read elsewhere that something like 70%-80% of a college's budget is tied up in personnel costs. With the faculty, tenured faculty are paid well and very hard to ditch when they're inconvenient.

What I've read elsewhere indicates that colleges are starting to prefer part-time instructors because they're cheaper and ditchable.

Is a pure OER degree really doing to change that math? I'd like to think that FT, tenured faculty can do something to avoid the fate of being phased out, but creative scheduling doesn't seem like a silver bullet that will offset the price+Longevity factors that push administration to avoid tenured faculty.
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