It’s Time for Faculty to Stop Sitting on Their Tenure

I am always surprised to read that faculty members of a failing college or university were surprised when the institution announced its closure, a large layoff, or major program cuts. How could the faculty have been unaware of the seriousness of the situation? How could they not have spotted any of the red flags? Were they not paying attention?

As a former college president, I am not overly sympathetic to a tenured faculty that has sat on the sidelines when it comes to its employer’s financial condition and future. From a basic risk management and career planning perspective, it is imprudent to blindly trust any board of trustees or administrator; indeed, history has shown clearly that employees do so at their peril.

I can’t image what it must be like, at age 40 or older, to be laid off or find your college has gone belly up. The lack of mobility in academia makes this prospect particularly daunting. Yet I fear it is just a matter of time before considerably more faculty members and staff will be put onto the street and have their lives turned upside down. There are just too many colleges that have been poorly managed or are highly vulnerable to a myriad of adverse market forces.

Small rural colleges with soft demand and weak pricing power are most at risk. Highly leveraged institutions are vulnerable, too, as are those with bloated cost structures or obsolete offerings. Or incompetent leadership.

The bottom line is, the list of vulnerable colleges is not short, and when the next recession hits, or the next steep rise in interest rates occurs, the list will get longer. Even under current conditions, more colleges will be closing. In fact, the worst of the carnage is yet to come. (Clay Christensen predicts half of the colleges will be defunct in nine years, but I’m not prepared to agree.)

Perhaps you haven’t given serious thought to the matter. That’s understandable. It’s not your job. But perhaps it needs to be your concern, especially if you’re at risk – especially if you’re financially and professionally dependent on an institution that is sitting on a rotting foundation.

Fortunately, there are things that can be done if you’re aware of the situation in advance. It’s not that hard to discern a college’s financial condition. A one-day walk-around of the campus with the facilities manager and review of three years of budgets, financial statements, and enrollment data are all that is required, provided you know what you’re looking for.

I’m not trying to make excuses for secretive administrators and boards. Or, worse yet, for trustees or presidents who engage in subterfuge with utter disregard for their students, faculty, staff, and community. Unfortunately, some trustees and presidents have conducted themselves in such a shameful manner. It’s a fact no one should ignore. Or assume could not happen at their institution.

In my ideal world, every nonprofit college (since all of them accept federal funds or tax-deductible gifts) would be required by the U.S. Department of Education and Internal Revenue Service to post online their financial statements and key enrollment data. But they aren’t. So it’s up to the faculty to ferret out the facts on their own if they happen to be working at an institution that doesn’t share such information as a matter of course. Most don’t.

An adversarial relationship is not what is being suggested; to the contrary, it’s important to act in ways that engender trust and respect. I have little patience or understanding for the reflexive adversarial postures one often encounters on college campuses. I never understood why some faculty members think it is in their interest, or the best interest of the institution, to publicly denigrate their college, or to battle publicly when a private tussle would yield better results.

Nor am I suggesting an expansion of shared governance principles. That’s a more complicated matter for another day.

Rather, I am suggesting that it’s time for the faculty to join the game. They’ve sat on their tenure long enough.

Specifically, I am advocating full disclosure, awareness and understanding – perhaps even a greater understanding than most of the trustees have. It’s not enough to have the facts. You need to have them and understand the implications for the institution and its future (and, by extension, your future).

The faculty is the heart of any college. But it often doesn’t act like it. While no board or president should mindlessly defer to the faculty’s wishes, an engaged, caring faculty probably could have helped save some dead or dying colleges.

One way of achieving this is through significant representation on the board of trustees. Designating no less than 25 percent of the board seats for tenured faculty members seems reasonable. If your institution does not grant tenure, substitute full-time for tenured.

If direct representation isn’t palatable to your institution, then at the very least there should be a faculty committee whose sole purpose is to attend board meetings as observers (including meetings of the audit committee) and to review and analyze budgets, financial statements, and enrollment data (institutional and class).

If you appreciate the financial condition and prospects of your institution, then there are steps you can take should serious issues be uncovered. First, there is the prospect of turning things around if everyone is aware of the situation and is working together to effect the changes that are necessary to secure the institution’s long-term survival. Second, if the prospects are too bleak – that is, if the trustees have allowed the financial hole to be dug too deep to climb out of even with herculean efforts (and no one should ever count on herculean efforts) – then at least you will have the opportunity to pursue opportunities elsewhere, on your time schedule and not after the payroll checks abruptly and unexpectedly stop.

It’s not just a matter of job loss either. Personally, I would have no desire to invest my career at a financially distressed institution. Pay will be uncompetitive; it will hit you in your pocketbook, which can add up over time and impact not only your standard of living but also your retirement prospects. Further, programs and facilities will be under-resourced; the educational experience you provide to your students will suffer. Simply put, there are no advantages to working at a financially distressed college but there are ample disadvantages and risks.

I give the same warning to prospective students: avoid financially distressed colleges. There are no benefits from attending one, but there are clear disadvantages and risks.

I appreciate the temptation to keep one’s head down and hope for the best. That’s an option. I’ve seen it employed many times, sometimes without adverse consequences but other times with disastrous consequences that easily could have been avoided. You have the right to take such risks for yourself, but I do wonder whether people who embrace such strategies should be teaching and mentoring young people. I think not.

Now, I understand that a proposal of the type I’m proposing is likely to be rebuffed by certain presidents and boards. My first reaction is, if they insist upon secrecy and take the view the faculty should blindly trust them, then at least you know the kind of people for whom you’re working and can assess the risks attendant thereto. If it were me, I’d explore my options. If life has taught me anything, it is never to completely trust anyone. The track record of quite a few college and university trustees and presidents in recent years validates this skepticism.

I suspect, however, that many presidents and boards would be open to the idea. Indeed, they might welcome it. When I served as the president of a small rural college that had its fair share of challenges, I was disappointed by the lack of interest on the part of many members of the faculty in the business and affairs of the institution and would have welcomed with open arms the proposal I’m advancing here (although, to be fair, I doubt the powers that be on the board would have been receptive to the idea).

The first priority for any institution, of course, is survival. People’s livelihoods are at stake, and nothing good can come to either faculty or students from a defunct school or one that is too strapped financially to deliver a quality educational experience. But no one should ever be surprised by a college’s closure. And no one should ever be surprised by layoffs or program cuts, either. If you are, then it’s probably time to look in the mirror and ask yourself why. More importantly, it’s probably time (or past the time) to put yourself into the game.

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