The Clarion-Ledger carried a piece last week by Meridian columnist Bill Crawford, in which Crawford blasted the IHL for its record of steady tuition hikes, driven by the underlying assumption “that university expenditures must always increase.” Instead of whining about the state’s declining share of support for public education, IHL should, says Crawford, find ways to cut expenses.
Crawford has no trouble cranking out a short list of proposed “transformative changes” that promise big savings – consolidate back-office operations, streamline “archaic” bureaucracies, overhaul personnel practices, and, my favorite, “revamp tenure provisions that sustain dead weight.”
A thorough exposition of Mr. Crawford’s confusions would take some time, but here’s the reality in a nutshell – Crawford’s supposedly “transformative” targets are little more than vacuous bromides. Operational consolidation costs a lot up-front and delivers questionable savings downstream. Eliminating bureaucracy sounds nifty, until you try to administer a complex organization without administrators; moreover, today’s cost drivers are not “archaic bureaucrats” (in the old days universities really did rely primarily on faculty who devoted a fraction of time to routine administrative duties), but the avant garde managerial professionals in technology operations, human resources, student services, etc. associated with contemporary higher ed institutions. Personnel practices that ignore “market adjustments” in favor “sober management” (whatever that means), as Mr. Crawford recommends, will promptly drive down the competitive quality of the organization. And as for all the “dead weight” supported by tenure, Mr. Crawford is dead wrong; tenured faculty – where they are not already gravely threatened by erosion in their ranks (Mr. Crawford might well consult national statistics on the steady nationwide decline of tenure) – are the productive lifeblood of their institutions’ teaching, research, and service missions.
The sad fact is that we’re in the midst of a long-term retreat of public support from public education at every level. Listing purportedly easy targets for big cost savings may help salve the guilty consciences of legislators who keep underfunding education, but it’s an otherwise worthless exercise.