The photo above was taken outside my sister-in-law’s house after a powerful storm ripped through her street a few years ago. The photo applies to what’s happening at America’s colleges and universities today: coronavirus has the potential to destroy the landscape of higher education.
One university president has pulled the alarm warning on his campus, the University of Akron. The Akron Beacon Journal reports significant cuts are coming to the university because of the economic fallout from coronavirus.
President Gary Miller released a video message that detailed challenges ahead and immediate plans for cost reductions. No specific savings target was announced.
“I have directed the Provost and his leadership team (including the deans) to present a plan for a full reorganization of the academic division that reduces the number of colleges and the number of programs while fine-tuning our traditional strength areas,” Miller said.
Senior administrators hired before April 1, including Miller, will take a 10% salary reduction next fiscal year.
The athletic department will need to present a plan for a 20% reduction next year as well.
The university appears able to keep its doors open. But in many states, the fight to keep a public college open is real. Consider this report from Inside Higher Ed and pay particular interest to the section that discusses how collaboration within a system might be valuable now more than ever.
One of the more eye-opening elements to the Akron plan is the potential for significant cuts to athletics. Here’s another story from Inside Higher Ed, in which one critic points the blame for the poor financial position a majority of such departments find themselves in to a win-at-all-costs mentality.
The pandemic is a time of reckoning for Division I athletic departments, which have historically poured revenue into creating powerhouse facilities and programs but failed to save funds and prepare for a “blip in their system,” said Nick Schlereth, a recreation and sport management professor at Coastal Carolina University who studies collegiate athletics’ cash flow. Departments are incentivized to build winning teams, not reserves, and if they overspend, they are typically covered by other university funds, he said.
“This is all the product of not being great stewards of the budget,” Schlereth said. “There’s been a lot of overspending. The times have always been good, and we haven’t thought about it.”
I’ve written about what a fall without college football could mean to athletic departments as a whole. And the University of Arizona president is warning his campus to anticipate no football later this year.
As campus leaders struggle to come up with answers to how, and when, to reopen their institutions, the even more difficult challenge is how to handle what might come after that.
Perhaps the only certainty about higher education right now is those institutions with the largest of endowments might come through the pandemic unscathed. That’s not at all comforting.