Are We Wasting a Perfectly Good Crisis?

In last week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson reported on a speech given by George Pernsteiner, Chancellor of the Oregon University System.  In addressing attendees at the annual meeting of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), Pernsteiner was quoted as saying “If [the crisis] is all we look at, we will have failed.  Our institutions will have failed.”

Mr. Pernsteiner believes that all the solutions generated so far out of the current crisis are “Band-Aids.”  He talked about the slipping position of college educated Americans versus other nations, the cutback in funding to public institutions by the states, and the growing percentage of Latinos who have been a traditionally underserved group in higher education. “More students, different students, fewer dollars, more control, and more accountability,” Mr. Pernsteiner said. “If you lay those things down end to end, you have a series of puzzles.”

Mr. Pernsteiner said that the solutions to these puzzles will not be reached by cutting costs.  He cited the software industry 10 years ago and said that many of the ideas expressed for cutting costs now appear similar to ideas expressed in that industry.  [Note:  the article does not mention whether or not Mr. Pernsteiner continued that analogy regarding the software industry to mention its dramatic consolidation over the past few years.]  Mr. Pernsteiner said that the solution to the puzzles lies with institutions’ greatest assets:  their faculty.  He further said, “Unless and until the faculty engage, we will not succeed in meeting this challenge.”

Carlson ended the article with a poignant statement about Mr. Pernsteiner asking the audience: how do you get the faculty to engage these challenges?  Evidently, the audience was silent.

I agree with George Pernsteiner that cutting costs won’t solve the problem.  I also agree with his statement that there are a series of puzzles that need to be solved in order to effectively address the larger problem.  Part of the problem is that many institutions of higher education have evolved into complex organizations which are difficult to manage and operate in a rapidly changing, economic downturn.  At all institutions, faculty have a key role in academic decision-making relating to instruction and curriculum and at some institutions, the concept of shared-governance is embraced, usually denoting a governance relationship between the faculty and the administration.  Managing any type of business in an economic downturn is difficult when only a few are entrusted with making the decisions.  Regardless of the situation, it is up to the leadership of the institution to communicate effectively and promptly with its constituents when faced with tough decisions.

On Friday of last week, the faculty union at Cal State approved a two day furlough (days off without pay per month) proposed by Chancellor Charles Reed.  At the same time, the faculty union voted 79 to 4 percent in favor of a no confidence vote for the Chancellor.  The extremely large gap in the no confidence indicates to me that the lines of communication in this crisis could have been more open.  An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes the Chancellor saying that the vote was just a small percentage of the faculty and that the faculty  should be directing their anger toward the California legislature and not him since the legislature should increase Cal State funding.  In addition to the furloughs, Cal State intends to balance its budget by increasing tuition by 20 percent and reducing its total number of students in the system by 40,000 by the 2010-2011 school year.

Cal State’s  Chancellor’s comments and Pernsteiner’s speech point out the conundrum.  One Chancellor says that faculty need to be engaged and another says that the legislature is to blame.  Neither suggests a solution.  One (Pernsteiner) states that cutting costs won’t solve the problem.  The other seems to imply that he should not have had to cut costs.  California voters aren’t going to be happy that 40,000 fewer Californians will gain admittance to the Cal State system.  Without some out of the box collaborative thinking, it appears that no one is going to come out on top in California and elsewhere, least of all the students and their families.  That’s the tragedy of this crisis and all troubled institutions should take a look at all types of higher education institutions to see if there may lessons on how to restructure or adapt to the changes in funding.  Tuition-dependent institutions may be able to provide examples of how to manage to match incoming tuition revenues and expenses.  Online institutions may be able to provide examples of successful higher education institutions that require little capital in the form of classroom, dormitory, and dining facilities.  The troubled institutions  may  also want to re-examine their missions and make sure that the adjustments that they make minimize the impact on the mission rather than just the personal goals of the administration or any other special interest group.  After all, why should we waste a perfectly good crisis?

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence