Friday, April 17, 2009

The new normal

Like most universities around the country, my institution is facing a fiscal crisis. But unlike those other universities, we are not being hit by the worldwide recession. It's not a matter of our endowment losing its value. It's not a result of state budgets in freefall. No, our financial troubles come from years of mismanagement, obfuscation, and minor lawbreaking here and there.

But it's real nonetheless. And this week my unit found out what it meant for us: a cut in scholarship dollars that will force us to move some of the funds we've managed to squirrel away in our salad days into student programs.

It could have been a lot worse. But fortunately for us, it's just bad enough to force a complete re-evaluation of our priorities. No longer will we be able to support every faculty or administration proposal that simply sounds like a good idea. Now we will have to choose between good ideas. And the basis for that choice must be our mission. Becoming more conscious of our mission is a good consequence of not having money to throw around.

We'll also have to make more thorough use of the time-, labor-, and money-saving technologies that are available to us. When there's excess cash and capacity, employees and faculty, to some extent, can choose how they want to work. Not everyone has to work at maximum efficiency; if some have ways of teaching or mentoring that they prefer, they can be accommodated. Not anymore. Because now, we need everyone's full productivity. If they used to spend 85% of their time on classroom processes and 15% on other kinds of work in the unit, we need them to use the tools available to cut down on that classroom time, because we need more of their workday to be spent on the other things we do, the things that make us different from the rest of the departments on campus -- where an 85-15 ratio might be perfectly acceptable.

These changes won't be easy. Some projects and principles that are important to individual members of the department will probably go by the wayside. We will end up spending time on things that are low priorities for us personally, because the unit as a whole needs our energies there. Over time, we'll each end up re-evaluating our individual relationships to the college and its goals.

And that's a chance for clarity. Despite the pain it entails, I think we need to seize it.

No comments: