David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: How Do You Decide Which ‘Great Idea’ to Back?

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

Only once in my faculty career have I found myself in an academic setting where there seemed to be plentiful lucre and resources for all.

Just after earning tenure at a notoriously underfunded public university, I spent a semester in a visiting position at a very wealthy, small liberal-arts college. The contrast between the two campuses in everything — salaries, hallway art, bathroom fixtures — was striking. Yet, as the saying goes, even Ivy League department chairs and deans feel they have insufficient money to do everything they want.

Certainly, for the vast majority of us in academe, making a positive choice — to create a faculty position, to offer a new class, to finance a research venture, or even to buy copier paper — also entails making a negative choice. Every person hired is someone else not hired; every computer bought for one classroom is one not installed in a lab; every new curriculum rolled out reduces teaching capacity for other curricula. "Growing the pie" may be an option, but you have only so much filling.

In short, one of the most important things you must realize, upon becoming an administrator, is that everything is a trade-off.

The Admin 101 series surveys the scope of the leadership track in higher education. (Browse the full series so far here.) This month’s column focuses how to make the best choices in the common structural conundrums faced every day by chairs, deans, and provosts.

There are too many "good causes." I have been an academic administrator for about 10 years. During that time, of all the faculty members who have walked into my office with a "great idea," next to none of them came with a plan to save money. I am at peace with that fact. The faculty members we hire are, for the most part, positive people who want to create, innovate, and maintain things, processes, and programs.

Likewise, most administrators — who largely come from the faculty — wish they could spend their careers building and sustaining, not hacking away.

Inevitably, however, the number of good causes always exceeds available funding and other resources (material, logistical, and human) to support them — a dynamic that is even more pronounced in this era of flat or reduced budgets across higher education. The choice is almost never between one good proposal and lots of obviously bad ones, but among a host of manifestly good things.

Everything has a constituency. So far, so pragmatic. Anyone who controls a budget — for a family, a program, a university — knows priorities must be set, temptations resisted. The orthodontics bill needs to be paid; maybe Disneyland will have to wait until next year. But the psychological and political catch is that many of the differences between one item and another are qualitative — about which honest people can disagree. An administrator’s "obvious place to cut" is a faculty member’s "sacred program that sustains the life of our department."

Emotion, ego, and ideology jumble with finances, and the solutions are never simple and self-evident. Each and every option has its advocates, often passionate ones.

A faculty member I know served on a task force created specifically to find "nonessential areas" to eliminate at a small liberal-arts college that was (and still is) in severe financial distress. After months of deliberation, the group could not agree on any cuts — only spending increases … for almost everything. Any proposed cut was met with fierce resistance from local partisans and timidity from everyone else. The result: no solutions.

Too little of our funding is discretionary. Administrators can’t allocate much of our funding outside designated areas. Take endowment money, for example. If a particular fund was established by a donor to pay for an undergraduate scholarship, that money cannot — legally, ethically, morally, procedurally — be spent on new chairs for the conference room.

Likewise, lab fees collected for one course may not be used to pay for equipment in another space. As I’ve noted before, budget planning is often a complicated game of "what can we spend where."

Take, for instance, my own college. Of its roughly $15-million budget, only 5 percent, at most, is truly "discretionary" — in the sense that we can apply it to almost any legitimate expense.

Together, all of those conditions create serious hurdles for campus administrators operating within a governance system. Here are a few rules of thumb that have guided me as I sought to make good budget choices:

Resist impulse spending to right a "wrong." The list of "virtuous" actions that people will want you to take is endless. Yet "doing a good thing" does not constitute a valid argument in and of itself, because there are hundreds of good things to do.

A department chair at a Midwestern university once recalled how several of his faculty members felt strongly that a particular lab should be upgraded after years of being left to decay. The chair agreed. However, after he spent the money, he discovered that he had nothing left to allocate for any emergencies or problems in the department’s other facilities that year.

Making tough decisions is presumably one reason you are paid to be a leader. So resist the urge to quickly right a wrong, and instead pause to first consider wider contexts and competing demands.

Beware of setting precedents. Support one proposal, and you may find yourself in a quandary, justifying why you can’t approve 10 others that are very similar.

A dean at a West Coast university recounted how, in his first week on the job, a group of faculty members expressed concern that funding cutbacks in the previous year meant they could not attend a "vital" conference in their field. Being naturally generous and wanting to start his deanship on a good note, he complied and gave them extra travel money.

Within hours, he received requests for extra travel funding from a few more faculty members, and within a week, the trickle became a mighty flood. Each had this robust argument: "You gave the funding to Sanjay and Sasha, so of course I deserve it, too."

Precedent and parity are powerful weapons. What my dean friend now realizes he should have said is this: "Let’s look at the system of allocating research travel funding for the whole college and try to establish some priorities." Not only would that have been prudent, but it also would have shown greater respect for faculty governance than bestowing special favors to a vocal few.

Ask the "Is it sustainable?" question. Say you want to offer a new degree program, in hopes of attracting new students and producing pathbreaking research. Do you have the faculty to teach the necessary courses? Not just next semester but over years to come? Do you have the space, the facilities, and the extra funds for, say, lab supplies? What resources will the new program draw away from other ventures? What new staffing and funding will the upper administration offer you? What revenues might the program bring in? And so on.

In our eagerness to start something new, there is a tremendous temptation to hypnotize ourselves into thinking that "it will pay for itself." So run the numbers soberly. Then run them again. You don’t want to fall into the trap of committing to a new project that is destined to fail because you underestimated its costs.

A new venture also must be able to endure politically on the campus. One pearl of administrative wisdom that you ignore at your peril: For any new thing to survive in the long term, there must be the political will to sustain it. That will cannot be just your own. Purely top-down ideas suffer the highest mortality rate on campuses. Taking the time to build at least a localized consensus with people who will work hard over the years to make the idea continually bear fruit is always a necessity.

I am fortunate to be a dean in a place with an innovative culture, receptive to new ideas and programs. We’ve reallocated funds without controversy and, more important, without blowback. But a dose of thoughtfulness and, yes, conservatism is always called for in making such decisions. There are so many good ideas; you cannot commit to all of them. It is your responsibility to do the investigative work ahead of time, and support what you and your colleagues believe will work best, longest, and for the most good.

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