So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.
While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.
And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.
Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?
For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.
I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.
Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?
This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.
But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.
As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)
It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.