Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Progressive poverty

Q: As summer vacations end and fall approaches, many of us refocus our efforts on the workplace. How have the economic doldrums affected you, and how have you adapted to the new realities of your job and lifestyle? In these times, have the meanings of success changed?

Call it the joy of living with the vow of poverty. Back in the days when higher education was rich and lush -- the 1980s and 1990s -- my college, Trinity, was deeply into the discipline of living with less, a habit learned from the wonderful Sisters of Notre Dame who founded the college a century ago.

The nuns worked for free for the first eight decades, and when those "contributed services" disappeared, Trinity discovered the true value of that "living endowment" as the new generation of lay academics and administrators, all needing a paycheck, worked to sustain a great institution on a shoestring budget.

The progressive idea of poverty is a social justice value that infuses Trinity and many similar religiously-affiliated institutions, especially those founded by Catholic religious orders of women. We live rather modestly, eschewing perquisites and lavish "stuff" while focusing on mission. We invest in our students, providing generous scholarships while also keeping tuition relatively modest.

Trinity's idea of success is manifest on graduation day when hundreds of students who are the first in their families to enroll in college walk across the stage to claim their hard-earned diplomas.

For many years, the potentates of privilege in higher education largely shunned the less well-endowed schools like Trinity. In 1989 when I first took office, I can recall one public university president telling me in no uncertain terms that if Trinity could not afford a certain service -- one that his university purchased for a handsome price -- we should not be in business. He could not imagine living with a budget that had no room for expensive consultants, office redecoration and presidential chauffeurs.

Rankings mania contributed to the emphasis on great wealth and amenities; the "best colleges" issue of U.S. News and World Report measures resources-per-capita, placing no value on the generosity of faculty and staff who took up the work of the nuns, willingly working for more modest salaries than they could earn elsewhere because they love teaching students who thrive in their classrooms.

How the tables have turned! The Great Recession of 2008 has roiled higher education considerably. As endowment values fell precipitously, perks and privileges washed away in the tsunami of economic change. Endowments shrank, layoffs ensued, perks disappeared. Harvard even stopped serving cookies at faculty meetings to save money, imagine! Public universities suffered through state budget cuts. Gifts and grants declined.

Trinity, however, is thriving, experiencing our strongest financial position ever. How have we been able to turn a modest surplus when other universities are in significant deficit positions? Our years of living frugally served us very well when the recession hit.

Always careful with our budget, we approached the recession with our well-practiced fiscal discipline, examining expenses even more carefully. Without a large endowment, long ago Trinity learned that we could not spend what we did not earn, so we never devoted endowment income to the operating budget --- a circumstance that caused real hardship at many colleges.

At the same time, in a more gratifying way than we even anticipated, our enrollment grew significantly during the downturn. We believe this phenomenon is due in part to the fact that Trinity has also restrained the growth of tuition, making our price more affordable for financially stressed students than other more expensive institutions. With carefully constructed financial aid packages, many students find that Trinity is even more affordable than many public universities. We also developed new revenue streams by adding programs in nursing and criminal justice, disciplines that have a direct relationship to post-graduate employment and critical workforce needs.

Careful pricing, generous financial aid, real educational value with results that lead to post-graduate employment and grad school admission --- along with living modestly and not spending money on unnecessary perks or outsized salaries ---- these are the ingredients for success for an educational institution coping with the recession.

And, by the way, we work year 'round. The idea that the summer is "off" and we're only just now returning to "real work" is ridiculous. While everybody managed to get some vacation, our business continues every single day all year long. Summer semester starts the day after May graduation and continues until the Fall semester begins. Like most universities today, our students are present 24/7/365 in person and online, in classrooms and at a distance, and the conversation of teaching and learning transcends traditional time boundaries.

Smaller, leaner institutions like Trinity can demonstrate better results today -- both on the bottom line and in student outcomes -- than some much larger, arguably wealthier, universities because we put a premium on delivering results for our students while emphasizing economic efficiency. We learned how to live with a progressive idea of poverty from the nuns, and we've turned that idea into a highly successful business model.

By Patricia McGuire  |  September 5, 2010; 7:06 PM ET  | Category:  Adapting to change Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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