The Unkindest Cut of All

October 05, 2009

Over the last year or so, the various online discussion groups devoted to academic administration have been abuzz with chatter about how to manage state-mandated budget cuts. Deans and provosts asked one another for advice about how to handle wide-ranging—and in many cases, unprecedented—rescissions.

As might be expected, each state-supported institution approached the budget crisis from a different perspective on how to maintain—or at least not impair—its mission. Some institutions announced across-the-board pay cuts. Others instituted mandatory furloughs. Still others dismissed or "nonreappointed" adjuncts and full-time temporary faculty members. A few even cut some tenured and tenure-track positions.

A new dean who had never faced state "givebacks" before desperately asked the online group how to go about determining exactly what to cut. Clearly frustrated, she wrote, "We have so little to begin with, everything we have left is important. I can't see how we can prioritize when we have already been cut to the bone."

Another dean replied with what I found to be singularly unhelpful advice. "Simply pass on to your departments the obligation to cut their areas at whatever percentage your state is requiring," she advised. "This places the real responsibility where it belongs—on the individual units."

I agree that when faced with state budget cuts, individual colleges, departments, and units should participate in determining their priorities and recommending what should be eliminated from their own budgets. However, enforcing the same level of cuts across the board is counterproductive. Requiring your very best and most productive programs to be reduced at the same rate as your least productive areas shows a lack of imagination and an absence of strategic thinking.

A more strategic approach would be to analyze which areas of the university are contributing least to its mission and which are helping to propel it forward. When an institution approaches the process from that perspective, it is even conceivable that some areas might gain funds at the very moment that other areas are being trimmed or eliminated.

As you can sense from the frustration of the neophyte dean asking for advice, any budget-cutting process is a fraught time, not only for those experiencing cuts in their departments, but also for those charged with overseeing the reductions. It is painful to eliminate programs, lay off people, or require furloughs. That's why so many institutions take what seems to be the easy way out by imposing across-the-board cuts, as if spreading the pain evenly would somehow mitigate it.

Perhaps more difficult but potentially more rewarding is to make budget reductions disproportionally. While each institution has its own specific priorities and challenges, some general principles are worth considering. Here are a few:

  • Protect the revenue generators. One college I know always experienced robust summer-school enrollment, which generated much-needed revenue for the institution, yet it chose to eliminate its summer-school budget in a recent round of cuts. The administration was attempting to avoid making other unpleasant cuts, but by eliminating its summer budget it effectively eliminated a source of revenue.
  • Protect and even nurture your principal programs. Especially protect those that bring national visibility to your institution or help define its distinctiveness. If you must reduce or eliminate programs, it's better to cut ones that are duplicates of those at other institutions than to cut the very areas that set you apart from the pack.
  • Protect core faculty members. Cutting everyone's salary may seem egalitarian, but it disadvantages the very people who you hope will help move the university forward after the cuts. At my own university, we chose last year to protect the jobs of core faculty members (including clinical faculty members), and instead to eliminate a number of vacant positions and not renew the contracts of a sizable number of full-time temporary faculty members. That was not an easy decision to make. We understood that some of those "temporary" faculty members had actually been employed for many years and had developed close relationships with many people on the campus. But given the university's mission and position as a doctoral research university, our decision to focus the cuts on temporary employees seemed the most reasonable.
  • Eliminate nonessential personnel and programs first. Careful analysis is likely to demonstrate that any organization employs a number of people whose role is peripheral to the key functioning of the organization. In tight times, those positions should be the terminated first. Close down unproductive centers, institutes, and other ancillary enterprises. Many institutions tend to accumulate a surfeit of such enterprises over time, and it is necessary (and healthy) to ask periodically, "Do we really need this center, or has it lost its usefulness?"
  • Reduce departmental commitments. Just as institutions tend to accumulate centers and other ancillary enterprises that have long since lost their usefulness, some departments accumulate an overabundance of programs. Reducing underperforming majors and minors, for example, can both save money and free up faculty members to engage in more central activities.
  • Consider mergers. Some departments and programs might thrive if joined together while also saving the university money by eliminating redundant administrative overhead. It might make sense, for example, to combine several small departments into one unit rather than let them limp along as separate entities. An added advantage might be increased collaboration among faculty members.
  • Seek to reduce the number of administrators when possible. Administrative posts sometimes proliferate just as unnecessary programs do. This is a key area deserving scrutiny whenever budgets are tight. Do we really need a graduate director in our department? Or an associate chair? Does the dean really need a third associate dean?

Institutions tend to grow in an ad hoc fashion, sometimes spawning new programs, employees, and administrators indiscriminately. But the fact that an institution has grown in a certain way does not mean that it must remain that way.

If the budget-cutting exercise of recent months has any silver lining, it is that an institution can pay focused attention to its priorities and potentially emerge leaner but stronger in the end. The "unkindest cut of all" is the one that slices evenly and indiscriminately across all programs without any attention to priorities.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor, with John W. Presley, of the newly published "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders" (Paradigm). He can be contacted at