As budget cuts become a more frequent part of life for university leaders, decisions dealing with them are landing in the laps of people who haven’t been formally trained on how to handle those “financial tsunamis,” Kansas University research has shown.
And that has had an adverse effect on the leaders’ health, department morale and accomplishing the goals of higher education, according to the researchers, Rick Ginsberg, dean of KU’s School of Education, and Karen Multon, chairwoman and professor of research and psychology in education.
Multon said the researchers questioned 56 deans and 45 department chairs around the country as part of their research.
“The cuts created some very serious challenges in their work,” she said.
Leaders found themselves making decisions about what to cut and which positions to keep open after someone leaves.
While there are some books on how to be a better department chair, they mainly focus on conflict resolution and managing people, Multon said. Dealing with budgets isn’t typically covered.
Leaders reported they had to do “more with less” and with larger class sizes, fewer faculty and smaller travel budgets becoming “the new normal” after years of declining resources.
“You have very little training in that sort of thing,” Multon said. “I was trained as a faculty member: teaching, research, service.”
The researchers found that being transparent helps in dealing with difficult budgetary situations.
“The more transparent you are, the more understanding you get, the more buy-in that you have on any decisions that you do make,” Multon said.
Also, leaders have to take time to take care of themselves physically and mentally, as many of the leaders reported higher blood pressure, weight gain and loss of sleep as a result of decisions they had to make.
“Living through all of this and having to make the decisions you have to make, it’s really awful,” Ginsberg said.
Those kinds of difficulties had an impact on universities’ ability to innovate and reform, and led to what Ginsberg called “tornadoes of misunderstanding,” among faculty members in the departments and other groups of people.
In many cases, turning to other leaders, friends and spouses can help leaders work through difficult decisions.
“Leaders don’t have to do it alone,” Ginsberg said.
The existing literature in crisis management and what Ginsberg called “cutback management” makes one thing very apparent, Ginsberg said.
“What’s crystal clear is nobody’s prepared for dealing with this,” he said.
Their research has not yet been published, but it was presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.