Breaking News and Making Change

Two stories have dominated the higher ed landscape in the past weeks.  The first was the firing of the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.  His firing was not the result of fiscal malfeasance, sexual scandal, or some other egregious impropriety.  No, he publicly disagreed with his president about a strategic reorganization plan for the university.  File:2010 newspaper press France 5125942563.jpgThe second is the recently-reported news that “at the 25 public universities with the highest-paid presidents, both student debt and the use of part-time adjunct faculty grew far faster than at the average state university from 2005 to 2012.”  The report is quick to note that there is not a cause and effect relationship at work here, but does contend that such evidence merits a closer investigation of the allocation of resources.

On the surface, these two items might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But their juxtaposition in my news feed made me wonder about how campuses manage the common enterprise of higher education and how to bring about change.  The traditional model of higher education in this country is not necessarily broken (as some would contend), but it is certainly under fire and in transition.  The old ways and models don’t necessarily work anymore and need to be modified and even changed.  Questions about cost, value, and delivery abound. The leaders of colleges and universities are being asked to demonstrate the efficacy of  their institutions and shrewd management of increasingly limited resources.  This is a daunting and unenviable task.

Yet like many a beleaguered institution, on many campuses this has not led to an open conversation, but has instead prompted retrenchment, defensiveness, and hasty processes.  Anxious to satisfy critics, accreditors, and to be accountable and deliver results, administrators move quickly (the reorganization plan at Saskatchewan, that Buckingham objected to, for example, had a timetable of less than a year).  Quick fixes–especially if they can be delivered by a new software program–seem to be the coin of the realm.  Take the vexing issue of student retention.  Despite the overwhelming evidence that relationships with full-time faculty are one of the keys to student success and persistence, many campuses have resisted cracking that nut or only nibble at it, because it would involve, among other things, the messy and longer-term work of working closely with faculty and critically examining teaching and co-curricular activities.  (But faculty are obstructionist, you might say.  Guess what?  Their obstructionism is winning if it’s kept you from asking anything of them).  Applying this evidence to the problem would also, of course, require less reliance on part-time faculty.  We are mostly not having these conversations.

In addition, these fast-acting administrative leaders who will brook no disagreement on the path to greater “efficiencies” are also exceedingly well-compensated.  Citing the study noted above, “the median total compensation of the 256 presidents in the survey was $478,896, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.”  There is a profound disconnect here.  The upper administration is profiting at a moment when student debt is rising, tenure-track lines are declining, and the exploitation of adjunct labor is exploding.

I’ll circle back around, then, to the idea of the common enterprise of higher education.  Higher education needs to critically examine itself and make changes.  I’m not obstructionist and I’m willing to sit at that table and do the work.  But we can’t start the work if we can’t have the conversation.  I agree with Timothy Burke who is quoted in the Inside Higher Ed coverage of the Saskatchewan case as saying, “It is ridiculous to demand unquestioning loyalty to all aspects of the decision and to handcuff the judicious, intelligent capacity of managers to critically assess the decision as it is being made.”  Further, the accountability and efficiencies that are the heart’s desire of so many administrators need to start at the top.  The deck is doubly stacked against those of us willing to work for change if our voices are being silenced and our budgets are being starved.

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