Home Online Education Access and Affordability Are We Wasting a Perfectly Good Crisis?

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?

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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