Dealing with the Future Now

Every few years those of us in public colleges are plunged into the same turmoil of budget uncertainty that invariably results in canceling travel and professional development, hiring freezes, and creative attempts to defer payments for every non-essential expense possible. The atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) hangs over every decision and even the most promising experiments in innovative teaching and learning are likely to be abandoned. In Virginia, most of us in are in the midst of the FUD part of the cycle right now with no long-term end in sight.

This is the part of the cycle where this Change article by ALan Guskin and Mary Marcy should be required reading for every leader in a college or university. The authors argue that these periodic retrenchments are not short-term problems–they are long-term and structural. The three sources of income for universities–tuition, state and federal government support and private philanthropy–are all limited, while those of us who work in higher education have unlimited aspirations and imaginations that eventually have to bump up against the sustainability of our funding models.

Guskin and Marcy call for leaders to recognize the fundamental changes in the higher education environment and to try to find more sustainable ways of dealing with the structural limitations of future funding. Transformation rather than “muddling through” is the goal.

“Muddling through” is a time-honored practice for dealing with recurring fiscal problems in higher education. So in the face of the present fiscal constraints, one can almost hear people voicing familiar sentiments: “We have always been successful in the past and we will surely come out of this okay…But in the present environment, responses that assume an eventual turnaround in fiscal conditions are difficult to justify. Projected future economic realities indicate a scenario very different from past projections.”

The key to transformation is focusing on developing a vision of the future that challenges our conventional way of doing things and focuses on two overarching purposes: enhancing student learning and maintaining a decent quality of faculty work life. Unlike many models of learner-centered education, Guskin and Marcy acknowledge the importance of reestablishing a quality of life for faculty that allows universities to remain true to their core values while responding to inevitable economic and cultural change.

Achieving the vision won’t be easy in that it requires changes to some deeply held assumptions about the nature of higher learning. But if the structural financial changes predicted by the article are accurate, the consequences of not changing may be even more painful than giving up some cherished assumptions.