Public higher education is accountable to many stakeholders: to students for a quality and financially accessible education, including for the support services that promote student success; to state taxpayers and the state legislature for wise allocation and use of state funding; to the federal and state governments for the millions of dollars provided in student financial aid assistance; to program accrediting agencies for the continuing development and refinement of relevant and rigorous academic offerings; to government and private grantors who provide restricted funding to support new and expanded offerings; to college accrediting agencies; and state auditors for overall college viability, management and effectiveness.
Public higher education must also comply with important laws and regulations that serve society and impact organizations and businesses more generally: privacy and security of personal information, nondiscrimination in employment, safety in the workplace, facility planning and operation, ethical and open procurement practices, and many, many more. Satisfying all of these needs requires both teaching and administration.
How to balance the key educational mission with the many necessary ancillary activities and the budget is a complex and difficult task. There are many different possible “right” answers, but there are no easy answers.
Different stakeholders understandably see their own immediate needs clearly, but are often unaware of the necessary — and yes, costly — infrastructure that supports the operation of a college or a system of colleges.
In an ideal world, abundant funding would allow independent colleges to operate separately and meet all these competing needs with ease. In the real world we make hard choices.
We can disagree, and often do, on the best course of action, but must recognize that all stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, legislators, board members, grantors, oversight agencies, and others – all seek to provide the best educational experience possible within the parameters of budget and accountability.
When we forget this, and squabble amongst ourselves, we hurt our common cause.
We need to grapple together with less than ideal solutions, even those that might not be in our own self-interest.
Can we afford independent college infrastructures or do we need a system or regional infrastructure to provide economies of scale? How important is local decision-making and in particular academic control? How do we maximize teaching resources when current funding is simply not sufficient to meet both student demand and overall organizational operating needs?
Pretending that the answer rests solely with bloated or uncaring administrators and board members who raise tuition rates, spend money and push paper, prevents all stakeholders – legislators and colleges, faculty and staff, central and local administrations, students and board members – from reaching honest and workable solutions.
Yes, centralizing various administrative policies and services takes power and control away from local colleges; yes, merging colleges or systems impacts local control and mission; yes, closing a campus or raising tuition impacts students. Yes, we should continue to demand the absolute best from all of our faculty, administrators and staff, but: there is really, really not enough money to do it all without making compromises to the ideal.
Vicky Greene served as the chief financial and administrative officer for Connecticut’s Community Colleges from 2001 until the merger that created the CSCU system in early 2012.