Why Not Right Size Colleges? Businesses Do It All the Time

Why Not Right Size Colleges? Businesses Do It All the Time

Karen Gross 08/12/2019 4

There have been recent articles about the merger (some say closure) of Marlboro College in VT with Emerson College in Boston. Basically, Marlboro is giving its campus and endowment to Emerson in return for faculty preservation (Marlboro faculty who want to move to teach at Emerson) and a center with its name at Emerson. Many folks in VT are upset and see this as the “end” of Marlboro; they are not wrong in many senses. They have been reflecting on and suggesting other approaches.

The College I led until 2014 shut under the new leadership, with the Board’s seeming agreement and endorsement. I worked in the short time I knew about this closing to try to save the college. There was not enough time and so much damage had been done already (including with accreditation and the accreditors), that it was a near to impossible task. I couldn’t do it and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of community push back on closure. The acceptance of a burial was right there. We tried some salvation approaches. Bottom line: too little, too late.

But, the proverbial but. I have had some revelations that had someone thought about them in 2017 or 2018 could have saved the College I led. It is a strategy that can be used by other colleges NOW and if they plan ahead, they can avoid the fate of some colleges that shut needlessly. The revelation I had (inspired by conversations with others and readings on college shutdowns) is something businesses have done successfully for years: Right Sizing (I’ll use it here as a defined term — Right Size or Right Sizing as the case may be linguistically).

Why didn’t HigherED and those within the business schools/departments suggest this approach for the college I ran? Now, to be sure, it isn’t easy. But, what it takes is realizing that enrollment is down and until replaced with new students through new initiatives that could take a year or two, one needs to rethink how an organization can be structured to meet CURRENT needs. (Yes, one needs those new initiatives but that is another topic for another article.)

There is a difference, an important one, between Right Sizing and downsizing although some suggest they mean the same thing but Right Sizing is a “nicer” term. Right Sizing will require some elimination on faculty and staff positions due to lower enrollment. But Right Sizing can also mean adding employees in key spots for new initiatives and other changes that impact costs and needs. This is the goal: Expansion and contraction simultaneously and matching budget to CURRENT needs.

In thinking about the College I ran, I can think of seven Right Sizing efforts right off the bat that would have made a difference I suspect had they been tried in earnest and with intentionality and thought and foresight and leadership and Board wisdom. OK, the latter two items might be a big ask in terms of agreement and getting on the same page but think about the seven items below. And, they are all things that can be tried by other colleges, adapted of course as needed.

Here are seven Right Sizing steps worth considering at any college:

  • Reduce faculty as needed to meet student enrollment. Yes, some positions would be lost (and might be regained). How to do that requires another essay given tenure and long term contracts. And consider whether quality is the criteria. Simply put: Align faculty in areas where there is demand and consider areas that are high need in the next year or two. Focus on programs with current strength. One can’t be all things to all students. There may be gaps short term — use adjuncts of the highest quality who know the institution and are more like “super-adjuncts” in that they have a role beyond the classroom. (Yes, that’s controversial.) Don’t enter new fields where the institution has no expertise. Aerospace may be a need but if one has no quality personnel in that field, it isn’t the right field to enter now. Build on strength — that’s the motto.

  • At the college I ran, there were some old dorms that were costly in every sense: costly to run in terms of maintenance and heat and light and Internet and costly in terms of staff needs, with student and residential life personnel being onsight or nearby. Suppose the dorms were knocked down (and yes, alums would have paid to swing a sledge hammer). Then, double up residential life in other newer and more efficient residential space. In the case of the College I served, several wings of the new space could be for new students and the other wing for older students and returning students; whatever works on one’s campus is the right thing. If more space were needed, rent it from nearby colleges or rent a home or two or three. Bottom line: have a residential life match enrollment. Growth can come and new dorms built to replace the old if needed down the road.

  • Cut administrative personnel and salaries. Bloat in administration is a big deal as are high salaries. (That’s apart from the quality issue.) Cut the president’s salary of the college — Right Size it. Cut administrative positions. Ponder this: Don’t hire a fundraiser who can’t raise enough to pay her/his salary with dollars left over within 18 months. Don’t hire consultants to tell you what you know; hire consultants to tell you what you don’t know. Consultants are expensive. Consider alums with ideas and expertise. Some work at other colleges even!!!!

  • Consider ways to get out of one’s silo and one’s deep affection for autonomy and create partnerships with nearby institutions: other colleges near and far; businesses near and far; high schools near and far; programs near and far. A couple of suggestions: consider older students with children and provide housing and opportunity for them. Think about semester programs or shorter programs that need workforce needs. If you move more people in and out, you need new personnel for that but make sure it is cost effective. Ponder local businesses employing students consistently so that the students could learn and work. Think about night and early early morning classes; think about classes offsite in local or even farther away areas with low or no rent and places with few if any academic institutions.

  • Be honest about one’s institution and its strengths and weaknesses. I don’t mean a SWAT analysis exactly. I mean assess what assets one has and then use them better and wisely. Reassess the marketplace. Be harsh. Be realistic. Be forthright. But, be creative and innovative and take risks too. There is no harm in thinking outside the box. Acting outside the box requires more than thinking and takes input and evaluation. But look at point six below.

  • Another thing: act fast. Academia is notoriously slow to change, reorganize, revamp. By the time some of the thinking (not acting is done), the landscape has changed. Create a mentality of “change now.” Reflect on 10 ways to “Right Size” at a myriad of campus meetings over a three month period. Then ACT.

  • Make sure one’s outside counsel is not stuck in the mud and married to liquidation or fearful of lawsuits. Find creative counsel who have new ideas and new approaches to higher education and who see new trends. Don’t hire the lawyer or law firm whose clients have gone into liquidation. Goodness knows that makes no sense. Sadly, some higher ed lawyers are missing the proverbial boat.

Perhaps these seven Right Sizing efforts could have saved the college I led. Too late to know. But, it is NOT too late for other colleges. Don’t downsize and simply cut. Right Size by thinking about what the market demands now and two years from now (not ten years from now). A budget can be cut without cutting to the heart of an institution. What is the Right Size for one institution is not the Right Size for another. But Right Sizing makes sense. It is a strategy that, when done well, saves an institution and many of those affiliated with it.

Right Size. It is worth repeating that it is a strategy for now. Today. Not tomorrow. By then it will be too late. I know all about that sadly.

A version of this article first appeared on Medium

Share this article

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

terms and condition.
  • Kaye Porter

    Colleges are very far down the vortex of the funnel by the time problems are publicly acknowledged.

  • Leon Welsh

    Institutions go through challenges all the time.

  • James Tomlinson

    The past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in the number of colleges who are unable to pay off their debts.

  • Elizabeth Harrison

    Excellent article

Share this article

Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


Latest Articles

View all
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Companies
  • Environment
  • Global Economy
  • Finance
  • Politics
  • Society