Q: How would you assess the leadership of college presidents in embracing new technology and innovative teaching techniques aimed at reducing costs, improving quality and reengineering higher education? What leadership steps would you recommend for them?
The public universities have done an exemplary job with the resources that have been provided to them, and they have fulfilled their mission as public universities. Declining resources have stressed their operations to the extent that they are in danger of not fulfilling their mission. Still, they have used technology and other methods to cut costs in the delivery of their programs to as broad an audience as possible.
Many public universities use the standard approach to budget-balancing in tough times. The typical reaction is to make an equal, across-the-board cut in all departments and programs. That way, they can argue that they're taking the egalitarian approach; the pain is being shared by all. But, in challenging times, this strategy may not be ideal. A better way would be to assess the need and viability of individual programs and measure any costs against the impact they would have on achieving excellence.
By cutting equally across the board, you might be trimming some fat -- if there's any left. But you're also likely harming programs and research initiatives that are doing well and deserving of more support, not less. You don't serve those programs or the research mission of your university if you cut the most successful and most promising programs and research initiatives to the same degree you cut the less deserving. It is extremely difficult to rebuild programs or research efforts once you make deep cuts in an unwise fashion. At the same time, you could be having a negative effect on the morale of your faculty and staff.
In spite of all of these challenges that the decline in state resources represents, the universities may consider creating opportunity funds. The end of the tailspin is when opportunity arises, and you have to be ready for it. That's the time to hire new faculty and attract new students, and you'll need money to do all those things to achieve excellence.
For periods of budget stress, I also recommend seeking the involvement of people inside and outside the institution. Recruit faculty, students, and staff to offer their input on all aspects of budget reductions and increases. Make the process transparent. In addition, communicate with the public - especially with the elected officials who control the purse strings of our state universities, and with the communities that provide support and infrastructure. Explain to them the impact that budget cuts would have and how they will hurt not just the university but also, by extension, the community at large.
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