Budget Resolution Must Come with Conditions

Oberlin College is once again in full budget crisis mode. For anyone who has been here a while, there is something wearily and depressingly familiar about these cycles of boom and bust. The crises always come out of nowhere, the result of some generalized affliction affecting higher education for which no one here is responsible. The process of budget cutting always has to take place at breakneck speed so that the normal governance structures can be by- passed and broader thinking about how to resolve the mess is impossible. And the overwhelming burden of the cutting always — but always — falls on the College’s employees, its unionized workers, staff, and faculty, though rarely the senior administration.

This time around, things need to be different. There should be three conditions for resolving the current budget crisis.

First, we need an acknowledgement of responsibility for how we got here, and some confidence that it won’t happen again. If we can’t learn why this keeps happening, we are doomed to keep repeating it. Administrations and boards of trustees are very good at taking credit when things go well; in acknowledging fault, not so much. We are not here because of one or two unexpectedly bad enrollment years. We have had years of poor endowment growth, special withdrawals from the endowment that have little to do with our educational mission, capital projects that have saddled us with debt, and a long-term failure to hit admissions targets. No amount of budget cutting can solve these problems, and the jobs and compensation of faculty and staff should not be sacrificed for decisions over which they had no control.

Second, we need breathing space to undertake any budget cutting in an open, democratic, transparent manner, using our existing governance processes. And we must do so in a way that ensures that decisions are smart and do not balance the budget at the expense of the quality of educational experience and staff which are, after all, the only reason anyone would contemplate coming to Oberlin. Draconian, short-term budget cutting can very easily reposition Oberlin as a weaker, less attractive college. A sense of crisis is always the enemy of good decision making. It also becomes an excuse, or an opportunity, to impose procedures and outcomes that would stand no chance under normal circumstances. Top-down or panicked decision making never yields better outcomes.

Third, we need a process in which everything is on the table, not just the jobs, salaries, and benefits of the College’s employees. We are constantly told that we have a “structural” budget deficit, which means that our revenue (from tuition and the endowment) is insufficient for the tasks we have set ourselves. You cannot solve a structural deficit by doing all the same things as before, only with the work done by fewer, more exploited employees. You need to do less. You need to give some things up. Deciding what to give up is hard, much harder than just decreeing another year of salary freeze and laying off some workers, but it is essential if we are to break this self-destructive cycle.