With dwindling financial support, what can presidents do to help their institutions stay afloat?
Leaders from institutions with limited resources share their tips for working with policymakers and maintaining funding in dire times of constraint.
Larry Dietz, president of Illinois State University, grew up on a dairy farm with modest means; his mother was a first grade teacher and his dad was a farmer. Education, he said, "changed my life," and every day when he wakes up and goes to the office he remembers "you really do believe in what you're doing [...] and so to the extent that you can promote that mission and vision, you will do that."
Illinois is one of a handful of states that has captured headlines for chronic issues with dwindling public funding for higher education. Dietz is known for working tirelessly to appeal to and coordinate with state policymakers to show why institutions of higher learning deserve more funds — and it's in part that personal notion of what education provides, he said, which drives that persistence throughout his role as a university leader.
But when it comes to this fight for resources, Dietz is certainly not alone. Funding cuts to higher education are spread across the nation, and college presidents are constantly trying to secure advocates. Leaders are having to ask themselves — what are the best strategies to increase or stabilize funding for my institution and prove its value to state and local stakeholders?
Build local industry advocates, share the story of education
Dietz explained to Education Dive that one of the more important strategies he employed was to build a team network with other public institution presidents to promote the story of why education matters to policymakers and potential industry advocates.
"It's critical to talk about strategies to try to convince legislators indeed that we are worthy of an investment and that we are part of the solution. My colleagues in the community college sector and in the private sector do the same thing,” he said. “We have meetings on our campus and the heads of all three of those different groups talk about strategies for the remaining current fiscal year and the next fiscal year.
Communication is a major part of this effort, he said, adding that it's important for struggling institutions to partner together, share data on best practices and tell the story about how higher education is necessary to the local economy.
Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, said that one of the greatest challenges in his state, which has empirically had some of the lowest funding for education in the nation, is explaining to people who perhaps didn't need to go to college to get a job, that this reality has changed dramatically.
Henderson, like Dietz, said he's made it his personal goal as a system president to share the value message of education, even joking he put 96,000 miles on his car driving around Louisiana to talk with people around the state.
Additionally, the collaboration component, he said, is key, as only institutions working together to share the message works well.
"The presidents … spend a lot of time working together and developing together the notion of system. How do you leverage that so you accentuate the uniqueness of the institutions and that collectively you achieve something that’s important for the state," said Henderson.
Henderson invited the presidents to Baton Rouge for a retreat, where they focused on access and success, research and economic development, stewardship and strategic framework. “This sets a tone for what we hope to achieve as a system and context, and it’s been remarkably successful," he said.
Ultimately, presidents have to be effective at telling the story, and "why the investment in educational attainment is necessary even against a whole litany of other demands for other resources," he explained. "Having a network of advocates around the state that can amplify that message is also key; we have 9 universities, each has a set of alumni that value that institution. All politics of funding are actually still local, you're showing the value to local economies and industries."
Limit institutional bloat, show efficient management, goal prioritization
One of the more common criticisms of the industry — especially throughout political discussions on higher education funding — is that institutions spend money frivolously. This idea has guided chancellor Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico State University, which has faced several years of declining state funding and only recently secured some additional dollars.
"Our state appropriations, as a percent of total budgeted income, on the main campus in 1996 was 39% and in 2018 it’s 33.2%. I'm honestly surprised that it hasn't decreased more than that," said Carruthers, who noted the state legislature is juggling funding for Medicaid and other things with education. The limited resources, he said, has forced him to consider strategic cutbacks and more efficient operations.
“We hired consultants to see whether we are overstaffed, and they said we are definitely unorganized," he said. So New Mexico State eliminated 750 to 800 jobs, flattened the organization and introduced new procurement processes. “By reorganizing the university, we saved about $10 million dollars,” he said.
In Illinois, Dietz said he took the same conservative approach to spending while adding more resources toward goals that fell into the institution’s mission — like diversity and inclusion. He said this is important to show the public that the university is making the right kinds of cuts and investments.
"I firmly believe that you can't have quality unless you have diversity — not just in ethnicity or gender, but also diversity of thought and philosophy,” he said.
Dietz said the university made a conscious decision to accept more under-represented students, and is pouring more resources into financial aid packages and retention programs. “But at the same time, we give out modest raises to good faculty to retain them, while also eliminating staff positions that were not as necessary and consolidated a number of programs into one area,” he added. He also said that last fall the institution went into the public phase of its capital campaign and has raised $117 million of $150 million itis seeking. “We're trying to help ourselves as much as we can."
Work with policymakers, understand their limitations
While it can seem like policymakers are not prioritizing higher education at all, they're working as best as they can to make sure the state gets funding across the board for all the good and services citizens needs, said Henderson. And, that's why the onus is on institution leaders to be "responsive to the communities we are trying to serve and bring employers into the conversation, so they have a vested interest in our success."
Certainly Carruthers, who served as former governor for New Mexico, has leveraged his inside knowledge of state politics to the advantage of his institution, as he recognizes the importance of facilitating a network of advocates. "We are very much a networking state and we depend on personal relationships often times more than testifying," he said.
"I think the legislature has been as generous as it possibly could be given the financial constraints of the state, and in particular I don’t think they’ve been critical to any degree at all of higher education, it was just a matter of how much money do we have. And so our strategy is that we stay pretty close to our legislature, frequently discussing and responding and testifying to all the committees of higher education. The strategy is we have a constant university presence. There are seven universities here we put together a strategy package during the summer time and consistently stay on script."
Dietz also feels the importance of recognizing policymakers' limitations, as it helps him understand what's possible and plan accordingly. Saying thank you can go a long way, he said.
"Legislators have hard jobs and they're scrutinized a level that most of the people are not and so one of the first things I do whenever I give testimony to appropriation groups and so forth is to say thank you for what you've done," said Dietz. "And then you can try to influence and persuade and cajole and do whatever you can to help the enterprise."
Follow Shalina Chatlani on Twitter