A Death by Many Small Cuts: University Presses and Small Colleges

I recently read a most thoughtful piece on the Stanford University Press debacle. It was nearly de-funded this year and then got what may be only a brief reprieve. The article pointed out that the recent action by the University was only one of a long series of actions involved with cutting the Press budget bit by bit and piece by piece. Thus the title: Death by Many Small Cuts.

Surely, there are other institutions and programs that can empathize (if inanimate places can feel). We are seeing institutions of long standing being gutted or closed. Presses, colleges, museums. (The proposed gutting of the Department of Education budget is another story altogether.) We see academic programs being cut or combined, some of which are later restored after complaints galore.

Here’s what I am wondering: what is the theory behind all the chosen cuts, apart from fiscal management and balancing budgets? Long ago, I wrote a piece suggesting that budgets are actually value statements — not as in value of the property but as in the value of what we are paying for (and not paying for) and why. In other words, budgets reflect what we think is worth funding, and what is cut, absent overspending or misspending, is a statement about something’s lack of value.

I want to focus on small colleges, the rare recipients of enormous 8 or 9 digit gifts. Big money is given to big institutions for the most part — part of the rich get richer strategy deeply embedded in America. But, I wonder if we are missing something there.

Small non-elite colleges often serve students who are not attending and could not attend elite colleges. Their high school grades and SAT scores (even with the proposed Adversity Score proffered by the College Board and don’t get me started on the score and its construction and application) would not let them in the door, not to speak of their attendance records and disciplinary actions and the like.

Yet, these small colleges, when they hold true to mission and are deeply student centered to their core, enable a goodly number of students with 10% likelihood or lower of completing a four year degree to get that degree. I know such a place — Southern Vermont College, where in the interest of full disclosure I served as its president through 2014. And now it is failing and floundering and absent some mini miracle that some of us are trying to accomplish in short order, it will close. Yes, close. Hard to fathom and accept. And there have been cuts and even acquisitions and one has to wonder how these choices were made. What values were being fostered? How about cutting administrators’ salaries. In fact, they should offer!

What happened to SVC, this once vibrant student centered place that will celebrate its 93rd Commencement this week-end? We can speculate and there is lots to be said later. But, for now, I am struck by how fragile institutions — ones that experience cuts yearly — do such good work for so many even with the cuts. What if one added them all together; in the aggregate, they are big; they serve numbers of students and collectively, have large budgets if we aggregate. We see them as small because we treat each in isolation rather than looking at them as a sector.

This reminds me of how we failed to pay significant attention to consumer debtors in bankruptcy until folks starting looking at this segment of the filings in the collective as opposed to in isolation. The aggregated data are noteworthy and enabled some pro-consumer changes.

A serious new sector analysis might be smart with respect to small struggling colleges. We might see the value then if we looked at the right aggregated variables.

Why can’t we see that and do more to help them? If I had a magic wand, that task would be way simpler. Yes, we need to rethink how small colleges run. We need to find auxiliary revenue streams. We need to augment how we do enrollment through pipelines. We need partnerships of all sorts — with other institutions, with schools across K-12, with business, with community. We need shared faculty; we need quality hybrid online offerings. We need trauma responsiveness and trauma strategies. We need to provide workplace readiness.

But, here’s the point, we don’t value these places where the cuts are happening and some are closing. Full stop. We see them as expendable parts of the educational landscape, like university presses. I think we are too quick to decide who lives and who dies among institutions.

So, I’d ask readers: what do we value as people and as a nation? Which institutions and programs and places are worth saving and on what basis? And, can we see these issues more clearly if we view them as a sector — university presses, HBCUs, small non-elite colleges?

Southern Vermont College has seen challenges before. I hope this is but another challenge in its 93 year history and that it will be around to celebrate its 94th Commencement and even 100th Commencement. In the meanwhile, in addition to trying with a group to save it, I will speak out on what we value as a nation I hope — equity, opportunity, enabling and encouraging others to be and become their best selves.

And for the record, few institutions survive when they are cut and cut. You can only wring the towel so dry. I have always thought that thoughtful spending is often a pathway to success, spending that furthers mission and educational quality. Of course, you can’t spend if you have been cut to the core and there is nothing at all to spend. And you need gifts or revenue of another sort to spend. One can’t just rely at small institutions on trustees to step up to the plate with money. One needs to develop other sources of revenue. What leader thinks fundraising is someone else’s job? (Another topic for later.) When you get in the posture of being cut too deeply, it may be too late to salvage what we most value. Institutions just bleed to death. How sad is that?

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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