On cutting at universities

Friday, September 26, 2003

Last week Southeast Missouri State president Ken Dobbins announced a curriculum review policy which has been approved by the board of regents.

All of the departments have been involved in the selection of 18 degree programs for review necessitated by recent budget shortfalls, but reviews should be regularly implemented with or without "financial emergency" considerations.

This is easier said than done, as discussed in the following excellent editorial by Hank Waters III of the Columbia Daily Tribune in commenting on recent actions under way at the University of Missouri.

UM program review

Don't hold your breath.

After several years of tight state revenue, University of Missouri officers finally are addressing the issue of mission focus. They have ordered an "audit" of several programs to assess their "viability."

Given the near impossibility of closing university programs, we can understand why officers at UM or any other such institution approach this issue only when they can allege something akin to "financial exigency," their only excuse for even hinting at making hard decisions. Program prioritizing and resource reallocation are obviously valuable management practices, yet the culture and politics of higher education make them nearly impossible.

Illustrating this point markedly were the comments of one MU program chairman targeted for review who expressed little concern. He regarded the audit process as a good opportunity for proving his program should be kept. History is on his side.

Higher education managers, particularly at public institutions, measure success primarily by growth. As they add more programs and revenue through the years, they add constituencies sure to become energetic lobbyists when time comes to enlarge the programs or, even more vehemently, to save them is threatened.

Any move to eliminate programs is up against this political culture.

However, a more focused mission is not mainly important as a way to save money; it is the most powerful tool for increasing the quality of the institution. Big public universities such as UM, and mainly its campus in Columbia, become hopelessly diverse. Program excellence is built through concentration, not sprawl, but as we see so clearly, institutions naturally sprawl, and excellence suffers.

MU tries to sustain too many programs. No bloodless process of empirical evaluation can produce final decisions about which programs should be eliminated. At best, preliminary "audits" might target a large number for consideration, but in the end courageous leaders with vision must make gutsy decisions about how the university's function shall be focused. How might money saved by closing a number of marginal programs be used to enhance other areas of excellence?

Well, you can see the problem here. All the natural forces of inertia are against any such process. Not even on-campus leaders of programs likely to benefit will openly support winnowing, so powerful is their communal need to show egalitarian solidarity. Instincts of boosterism expressed by powerful off-campus community leaders will be against what they will regard inaccurately as "retrenchment." Some of them might be graduates of targeted programs. Most won't care much how university money is spent just so long as the volume of operations grows.

So, program prioritizing will not happen except through the efforts of an extraordinarily strong leader who can explain all its benefits, including economic. New UM president Elson Floyd has as good a chance as any of his predecessors, but if he is serious about reallocation he still will need the support of an unwavering board of curators and at least an acquiescent state legislature. When serious mission focus has been tried in the past, even though these political bodies gave initial support, they caved before the deed was done. Any leader bold or foolish enough to seriously tackle the task was left out to dry.

For years I have urged a process of reallocation at MU, but I've been speaking to the trees in the forest. This sort of good management fails to happen because most people are ignorant, leaving the field to special-interest defenders of the status quo ready to turn on a leader who would make hard choices. Every time, we choose the comfortable road toward mush mediocrity instead of the rougher path toward sharply focused excellence, giving campus managers every incentive to make every compromise necessary to try to please every interest group.

If curators and faculties and legislators would support a plan for winnowing and concentrating and building quality, the inevitable opposition to change could be overcome.

Even then proof of success would be a while coming, presenting a long, hard road ahead for a would-be reformist.

I'm not holding my breath, but my how I'd like to see another heroic effort. If the financial picture remains bleak enough for a long enough time, some faint glimmer of hope might present itself. Too bad this is the only way we might get there.Hank Waters III

Columbia Daily Tribune


What is success?By Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is success?

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics

and to endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;

To find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by

a healthy child, a garden patch

or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed

easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.

Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will -- his personal responsibility. Albert Schweitzer

Gary Rust is the chairman of Rust Communications.

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