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Monday, December 29, 2008

Apocalyptic Budgeting

It’s been nearly 75 years since the four horsemen of the apocalypse made their last appearance on a college campus. Then, the names were Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden, and the scene was football: Notre Dame v. Army as reported by Grantland Rice. No more.

This year, universities from east to west will be entertaining pestilence, famine, war, and death with no leather helmets in sight. Pestilence has been around for some time, most obvious as a decaying commitment to full time faculty and students and the steady underfunding of the liberal arts and sciences coupled to the growing expectations for access to higher education. Now famine has arrived, ready to make vibrant colleges and universities into sickly caricatures. Can war and death be far behind? The civil wars have begun, between community colleges and research universities, between regional institutions and statewide behemoths, and between and among satellite campuses, learning centers, and on-line programs. Inter-institutional wars remain in full swing, and the competition for rankings is real.

The apocalypse is here or at least on the horizon. Programs with the death rattles of low enrollment or too little research funding are likely to be relegated to the ash heap of history. The end is near, and for nearly two years now, the “going out of business” signs have been up as institutions prepare to be swept over the precipice. Remember Antioch. Forget the pale horse; look for the black horse of death.

This Dickensian tale has everything, including the empty porridge bowl. And it’s not likely to get better very soon. Hiring will be frozen, salaries capped, travel restricted, corners cut, and expectations dashed. More may be done with less, although for institutions with less, it’s more likely that less will be done with less. Even institutions with the myopia of strained resources will be smart enough to see what’s coming, even as the number of college students rises. With luck, they will have brought their checkbooks, credit cards, and loan applications.

Within the month, targets will appear – to be shot at, if not hit. More will be made of having less: less access, fewer programs, less choice, fewer faculty. The knowledge economy will, simply, find it hard to build inventory.

Stay tuned for the first budget cutting lessons of the 21st century.

Dick Pratt is Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Washington State University Tri-Cities.

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