If you’ve had to sit through more than one meeting with me, you’ve almost certainly heard me ask this question. Even though I can see how the question might sound rhetorical and maybe even a little snarky, I’m really just trying to help. Because I know from my own experience how easy it is to get lost in the weeds when trying to tackle a complex issue that is full of dicey trade-offs and unknown unknowns. So sometimes I’ve found that it can be useful to pause, take a couple of deep breaths and refocus on the problem at the core of the conversation.
By now you’ve almost certainly heard about the discussion about transitioning from an academic calendar based on trimesters to one based on semesters. Last week, Faculty Council provided a draft proposal to the faculty to be discussed, vetted, and even adjusted as legitimate concerns are identified by the community. Since I’ve already seen a calendar discussion sap us of most of our energy twice (or once if you count the two-year discussion a few years back as a single event), I hope that this time we can find a way to get through this without quite so much emotional fallout.
With that in mind, after listening to the calendar conversation for the last few months I thought it might be helpful to revisit the question at the top of this post:
What’s the problem we’re trying to address?
It is true, in one very real sense, that there is not a single answer. In fact the “problem” looks different depending upon where you sit. But since the topic of semesters was formally put back onto the front burner by the senior administration and the Board of Trustees, it’s probably useful to understand the problem as they see it. From their perspective, the problem we are facing is actually a pretty straight-forward one. In a nutshell we, like a lot of colleges and universities these days, have a balance sheet problem. In other words, we are having an increasingly difficult time ensuring that our revenues keep pace with our expenses (or put differently, that our expenses don’t outpace our revenues).
The reasons for this problem have been presented countless times, so I’ll try not to dive down that rabbit-hole too far again. But suffice it to say that since American family incomes have been stagnant for a long time, each year that our costs go up we lose a few more prospective families that might otherwise be willing to pay what we charge. Combine that with a shrinking population of high school graduates in the Midwest overall, and you can imagine how it gets harder and harder to come up with the increased revenue necessary to pay for inescapable increases in expenses like electricity, gas, and water, not to mention reasonable salary raises, building and sidewalk repairs, and replacements of worn out equipment.
The possible solutions to a straight-forward balance sheet problem like ours are also relatively straight-forward. If we decide to think of it primarily as insufficient revenue, then we would likely choose a way to increase revenue (e.g., enroll more students, add graduate programs, start online programs . . . each of the examples in this category are perceived by many as a potential threat to our philosophical core). If we decide to think of this problem primarily as excessive expenses, then we would likely choose a way to reduce expenses (e.g., make the college demonstrably smaller, eliminate Augie Choice . . . the only examples in this category that I can think of are pretty depressing). If we don’t see plausible options to increase revenues or reduce expenses, then the only other possibility is to find ways to become more efficient (i.e., achieve similar results from smaller expenditures). Of course, we could concoct some combination of all three approaches.
From the administration’s perspective, the possibility of moving to a semester-based academic calendar addresses the balance sheet problem by giving the college access to an expanded set of opportunities for increased efficiency (i.e., achieving similar results from smaller expenditures). Some of those efficiencies are more self-evident, such as reducing the number of times we power up and power down specific buildings. Some of them are more abstract, such as reducing the number of times we conduct a large-scale process like registration. But the central problem that the semester idea attempts to address is an issue of imbalance between revenues and expenses.
Although some have suggested otherwise, the semester idea is not primarily intended to improve retention rates or increase the number of mid-year transfer students. It is possible that a semester calendar might be more conducive to retaining students who struggle initially or attracting transfer students just after the Christmas break. But there are plenty of similar institutions on semester calendars with lower retention rates and fewer transfer student. Of course, that doesn’t disprove anything either; it just demonstrates that a move to semesters doesn’t guarantee anything. Increases in retention and mid-year transfers will happen (if they happen at all) as a result of what we do within a new calendar, not because we move to a new calendar.
I truly don’t have a strong opinion on the question of calendar. Both trimesters and semesters can be done well and can be done badly. This is why Faculty Council and others have thought long and hard about how to construct a semester system that maintains our commitment to an integrated liberal arts education and delivers it in a way that allows faculty to do it well. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to remind ourselves why we are having this conversation and the nature of the problem we are trying to address. If you think that we should address our balance sheet issues by expanding revenue sources or by reducing expenses, then by all means say so. If you don’t think a balance sheet problem exists, then by all means say so. But let’s make sure we understand the nature of the problem we are trying to address. At the least, this will help us have a more transparent conversation that leaves us in a healthier place at the end, no matter what we decide to do.
And one more thing. Let’s not equate “increasing efficiency” with “doing more with less.” Increasing efficiency is doing differently with the same resources in a way that is more effective. If we are in fact continually doing more with less, in the long term we’re doing it wrong.
Make it a good day,