Hard Times, Tough Decisions

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Harry L Peterson

When you assumed the presidency, you assured your new colleagues that you were a good listener, that you had an open door policy, that you wanted to hear about new ideas and that you would consult with them.

You came with plans for some significant changes to make your college or university better. Now, budget cuts have made things so bad that you spend all of your time trying to figure out how to get through the year. You thought you had a job. Now, it seems, the job has you.

All of the things you said about how you would lead your institution does not mean nearly as much as what you actually do, especially when times are tough and the decisions are hard. It is not that people will forget what you said. They will remember, and they will compare what you said with what you do to see if the two are consistent.

Tough as times are, it is possible to deal with budget problems in a way that can get you and your college or university through them effectively. You can be a stronger leader after the cuts have been made, if you understand your institution and lead accordingly. More importantly, your organization can be made stronger.

To accomplish this, you need to understand the people you are leading and serving. Here are the important understandings that I acquired about people during some very hard times:

  1. Never underestimate the willingness of people to accept bad news if it is given to them straight. Never overestimate the information that people have on a subject which you are thinking about all the time.
  2. Other people in the organization are not thinking about the same things you are and do not see the college as you do. They have other things on their minds and their jobs are very different from yours.
  3. People want to be informed and consulted, but they also want a leader who, after gathering all the necessary information, will make decisions. They are uneasy if they believe that the last person in your office will have the most influence, or that the ones making the most noise will prevail.
  4. Your colleagues want to be part of an organization that provides meaning to their lives and their work. They will settle for efficiency if they must, but just like you, they long to be part of an enterprise that is engaged in meaningful work and cooperation.

Consistent with the four important understandings just described, there are steps that are important to take. These steps will not make the job easy, but they will make your goals achievable:

  1. Communicate: If there is bad news it is important that people in your organization learn about it from you. There will be rumors during difficult times and your accurate and timely information can reduce the misinformation. If you are the person telling them, and you provide the information in a straightforward and timely way, you will demonstrate your openness and you will not be reacting to or correcting news that someone else provided.
  2. Consult widely: Make clear the way you want to hear from others before taking action and that you want to hear people’s ideas, both directly and through organizational channels.
  3. Protect core programs and values: Every college or university and every president talks about the importance of students and a commitment to excellence. This time people will be listening and they will look for confirmation that you meant what you said during easier times.
  4. Be an active leader: Hold meetings, talk to people formally and informally and, most of all, listen.
  5. Be visible: There is a tendency during difficult financial times for the cabinet members to disappear in the office of the president and for the president to narrow the group of people who are consulted. There is never a time when the need to be visible on campus is greater than during a serious crisis.
  6. Don’t blame others: There is a temptation to want to complain that the governor, the legislators, or the board are being unfair and that this budget problem could have been avoided if they had done things differently. The complaints may well be justified and there is certainly a time for strong advocacy; constituents inside and outside of your college or university should expect it. However, blaming others will neither help you make the necessary decisions, nor strengthen your leadership. Under pressure you can make statements you will regret, which overstate the problem and demoralize the people you have been chosen to lead.
  7. Make the final decisions yourself: Do not confuse consultation with committee decisions. Your board, the faculty and staff, and the alumni are not interested in hearing that the budget committee voted 5 to 4, or unanimously for that matter, to take a particular action. They expect you to make the most important decisions and be able to defend them.
  8. Make sacrifices yourself: There is an inherent, structural tension between the administration of a college or university and the faculty. This tension has been exacerbated in recent years by very high salaries provided some presidents, causing a huge salary differential between the president and the faculty. This creates an even greater need for the leader to make clear his or her willingness to sacrifice, along with everyone else in the college or university.
  9. Use the budget cuts to make decisions that need to be made: There are times when across-the-board cuts are appropriate. However, there are other times, especially when the budget reductions are large and painful, that this makes no sense. Small units can experience budget reductions so painful that they have a difficult time functioning. Every president and every senior officer in a college or university can identify marginal programs and expenses that are not of central importance and may not be well managed. Sometimes these are programs where the difficult decisions have been delayed. These decisions are never easy, but there is never a better time to eliminate such programs or positions than when everyone in the institution knows there are budget problems.
  10. Explain why you took the actions you did: The need for clear communications does not end with stating the problem clearly at the beginning. It continues as the problem is being addressed and does not conclude until the decisions have been made and you explain them. Make sure that your explanations are clear and understandable. The explanation should also cohere and not appear to be a set of unrelated decisions, designed to add up to the necessary budget reductions. People relate to stories that they can understand and tell others. Effective leaders describe challenges and their actions in ways that people can understand.

You always wanted to be a leader and this is your opportunity. It is not the one you would have chosen, but leaders have always been asked to do things they were not hired to do and did not feel prepared to do. If you do it right, and do it carefully, you and your college or university can emerge from this ordeal intact and, in many cases, in a stronger position.

Harry L Peterson
President Emeritus
Western State College of Colorado

Author of: Leading a Small College or University: A Conversation That Never Ends (Atwood Publishing, 2008)