Saturday, October 25, 2008

15% of what!?

It’s not quite the writing on the wall, but there are faint glimmers of text underneath the white-wash job they slopped on in 2001. That would be the last time the university underwent a knee-jerk reaction to a downturn in the economy.

So much of higher education seems to run counter to common sense and the general directions you would expect things to go when the economy gets really crappy. Traditionally, more students decide to stay in school (particularly grad school) when the job outlook is bleak. Similarly, schools such as University College see slight enrollment increases as out-of-work adults look for retraining and retread opportunities. All of that means nothing when the mother ship's general endowment (the investments from all those wealthy alumi donors) takes a 40-60% hit. Yeah, that's a lot of operational dough.

The surprised look around the table after the Dean announced a 5% budget hacking this fiscal and additional 10-15% next fiscal made me smile a little. Deep down inside I was thinking that now is the time these people have to stop playing like they know how to run a business and actually do something business-like. When I think about why and how certain departments in the organization have dedicated operational budgets, I get a small pain in my lower back. It's the pain you get from sitting on your wallet all day, only to ask yourself, "Why do I carry a wallet anyway? My wife has all the money. Maybe it just makes me feel like I'm really in control of something."

It’s been a long and windy complaint of mine that for the most part, people working in higher education fail to understand that what they are doing is selling a product. Arguments about what that product actually is occasionally get way off track, especially when undertaken by people with Ph.D.s in education or textual studies. Suffice it to say that regardless of what the product is, enough people on most campuses wouldn’t know the product if it was marked by a rotting moose carcass on the quad.

In a really creepy (almost scary) way, I’m really geeked-up about the possibility of showing my colleagues how to carve out 15% of a budget without canceling the coffee service. I honestly think that those of us with enough scars from the private sector can bring a fair amount of calm and diligence to an otherwise weepy-eyed job.

Results and better suggestions to follow.

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