To Party, or Not to Party

Brian Taylor

January 03, 2011

During the recent holiday season, many academic leaders found themselves in a quandary. University budgets were continuing to constrict, yet most institutions traditionally take advantage of the season by sponsoring receptions to show their appreciation of faculty and staff members.

The question on the minds of many: Was it ethical to cut programs, slash operating budgets, and require pay furloughs while spending institutional dollars on a large, festive party?

Several friends and colleagues called me to express their concern about this dilemma and to ask for advice. A provost at a public university told me he agonized over whether to give his deans the green light to hold holiday parties. Finally, he authorized the celebrations so long as they were not subsidized by state money.

"Most of my deans have nonstate funds that they can draw on for such events," he said. "Given the grim fiscal condition of our state and my university, it would be unethical, in my opinion, to expend state dollars on a party—no matter how important the event might be for morale."

A dean whose college is facing potentially steep budget cuts asked me in desperation, "Shouldn't I cancel our holiday party out of compassion for those faculty members who will likely not have their contracts renewed at the end of the year? I fear that we are sending the wrong message by having a reception in the first place, given the bad shape of the local economy."

As it turned out, she allowed the reception, and she reported that the event generated substantial goodwill and was, therefore, worth the meager investment and the risk of criticism.

Institutions have responded to this dilemma in a variety of ways.

One university leader I know simply canceled the traditional "holiday at the president's house" reception, breaking a nearly half-century-long tradition. "The cost of the event is minuscule in the great scheme of things," she told me. "But I am not about to lay off staff, facility workers, and adjunct instructors without being able to say that I saved every penny I could to preserve their jobs. To me, that's a no-brainer."

Another university president had a different philosophy. He reasoned that his institution's holiday party incurred a one-time expense of a mere $4,500—an amount that would have had a negligible effect on preserving recurring budget expenses like salaries.

"When the state demands that we return funding," he explained, "they want recurring dollars, such as salary lines. A few thousand dollars in one-time cash would not save someone from being laid off, so at least it could be invested in showing our appreciation to our dedicated employees who will survive the cuts."

A friend of mine who is the head of a midsize hospital told me that his organization faced a similar predicament last year. Budgets were tight, yet the administration wanted to honor its employees. Rather than make a snap decision, the hospital surveyed its employees and found that they would rather receive a coupon for a free frozen turkey than attend a lavish company party.

"That certainly saved our organization a lot of money," he said, "while making our employees happy."

Tough decisions are not unique to university and hospital administrators. Even Queen Elizabeth II of Britain canceled a planned holiday party at Buckingham Palace. She was said to consider it inappropriate to celebrate when the British people were experiencing a difficult economic situation.

Clearly, university administrators and others are in a conundrum here. Institutional culture can set the context for decisions about how to balance the need to recognize and reward employees with the need to be sensitive to the plight of those facing unemployment.

For example, in some departments and colleges, faculty and staff members are indifferent to institutional parties, and the turnout correspondingly light, so canceling is the obvious move. In other departments and colleges, however, the annual holiday party is a beloved tradition, so canceling to save a small pot of money may do more harm than good. I know of one college within a university in which the office staff begins planning the holiday festivities two months in advance, and people make a special effort to attend. Even the president shows up. That kind of tradition needs to be taken into consideration.

Where I stand on this: Even in the worst of times, we should make every effort to acknowledge and applaud our faculty and staff members—and it seems most appropriate to do so during the holidays. It is precisely when economic times are toughest that employees need to know that they are appreciated.

As you plan for next year's festivities and make decisions about other campus events during tough times, here are some tips:

  • Consolidate receptions. Within some colleges, departments have pooled their money to hold joint receptions, and within some institutions, colleges have done the same. It allows units to do more with less.
  • Use donated money. If your university is a public institution, a holiday reception is much more defensible if it is paid for with private dollars.
  • Apply common sense. This is not the time for extravagance. Hold the party, but downsize it to signal that you are sensitive to the hardships around you. During this past holiday season, many departments shortened the length of their festivities and provided far less food and beverages than in years past. Others canceled the live entertainment. More important than any of those details is that faculty and staff members have an opportunity to interact in a casual setting.
  • Ask for help. Obviously, if the intent of the holiday party is to recognize faculty and staff members, then you do not want to ask them to provide food and refreshments as you might at a true "potluck" event. However, some academic units supplement purchased items with home-baked goodies prepared by volunteers. In one college I know, the dean himself bakes an impressive number of cookies and brownies.

Appearances are important: We don't want to be sponsoring sumptuous parties while some employees are slated to be let go. However, we have an obligation to honor our faculty and staff members. A modest holiday reception can go a long way toward enhancing morale and is a small price to pay for much-deserved recognition.

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