Another college commits to a queen sacrifice

A certain strategy is increasingly available to financially stressed American colleges and universities.  It involves cutting selected majors and programs while removing tenure-track faculty.

The queen is down.I’ve dubbed this strategy the queen sacrifice, drawing on that desperate chess move whereby a player gives up their most powerful piece in a risky play for victory.  In the analogy tenure-track faculty are like the chess queen, since they have so much institutional clout, nominally and traditionally, if not universally in practice.  Cutting those professors is an analogically bold and difficult move.  (Declaring a formal state of financial exigency is one way)

I’ve been tracking college and university queen sacrifices for a while, as I see them playing a key role in shaping higher education’s future.  Today’s example comes from a Boston-area campus.  It’s a useful case study of a college making strategic cuts.

Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts institution in Wenham, Massachusetts, announced it would cut programs and positions.  For professors and staff,

[e]leven faculty members are being laid off and two more retiring faculty will not be replaced. In addition, six staff members are being laid off and an additional 17 vacant staff positions will not be filled…

According to Gordon’s student paper, that means “14% of current full-time faculty” positions are cut, including some vacancies.

[E]leven faculty members will lose their jobs; an additional two faculty members are proceeding with their planned retirements and their vacant positions will not be filled. Two of the eleven faculty members were offered different positions within the school.

Program cuts and compressions:

Gordon is eliminating stand-alone majors in chemistry; French; physics; middle school and secondary education; recreation, sport and wellness; Spanish; and social work, and it is merging political science, history and philosophy into a single department.

At the same time there are several curricular expansions under way:

Gordon is also expanding its graduate and online offerings through a newly created School for Graduate, Professional and Extended Studies…

Gordon said it is creating new multidisciplinary or “integrated” majors: for example, in lieu of a chemistry major, future Gordon students can enroll in a new biochemistry and integrated science major. Students interested in physics can take a physics track within a new physics and applied science major. A new sociology and social practice major will combine sociology and social work. Within the combined history, philosophy and political science department, stand-alone majors in political science and international relations will continue to be offered, and potential dual majors such as history and philosophy and history and political science are under review.

A $10 million donation is helping power the curricular development.  So Gordon is cutting, expanding, and reorganizing at the same time, leading to a net curricular and employee reduction.  The total budget is being cut 7%. (“five percent which will be realized immediately in the 2019–20 academic year, and two percent which will be realized in the 2020–21 academic year”)

Why is this happening?  Unusually, Gordon doesn’t seem to be reacting to present threats, but anticipating upcoming ones:

Gordon is taking strategic steps to meet new market realities out of financial prudence and not out of financial distress. (In other words, we’re choosing to be proactive now rather than waiting to be reactive later, when financial pressures would be stronger.) [emphases in original]

As part of the official announcement the school posted an analysis of the overall higher education market, which reads like it was written by a team following this very blog.  It describes enrollment declines, rising discount rates, rising total cost of higher education, and greater pressure on tuition.  The page even echoes my overbuilt language: “Simply put, [total] higher education capacity exceeds demand.”

I’m not sure of Gordon’s current financial health.  A local paper reports that enrollment “had dipped about 6 percent in the last few years, from 2,105 undergraduate and graduate students in 2014 to 1,963 last year.”  That could constitute serious financial pressure, depending on other factors.  Their endowment is around $35 million, according to Wikipedia, which is too small to solve major problems.

On a related note, I detect a sense of the curriculum being overbuilt.  According to one official statement, “This [strategy of cuts] keeps Gordon’s academic resources from being spread too thin across too many individual majors…”

The student paper also offers a good, detailed account of other cuts and cost-saving measures.  This is a useful study in the many ways colleges can scramble to fix their finances:

the school is looking at counseling options for students outside of Gordon’s current offerings. Options on the table include partnerships with local Christian counselors and working with the counseling center at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary…

Gordon College is looking to increase investment in solar energy to reduce energy costs; the police department will also receive less funding for non-essential training and overall operations, but no full-time officers are being cut from the Gordon Police force; the Dexter house will be sold after this academic year, and the dorm is housing its last cohort of students this semester; the Center for Technology Services, the mailroom, and the development office will also see reductions in expenses and personnel.

They also seem to be pressing their summer youth (not undergraduate) programs.  That’s prominently positioned on their home page today.

Let me close with some observations.

Changes in religious belief may propel some of Gordon’s enrollment decline.  It is a religiously conservative institution.  In 2014 the college won attention by asking then-president Obama to exempt faith-based organizations from new regulations concerning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender orientation.  If Gordon draws its students from New England and focuses on traditional-age learners, declining religious affiliation may be narrowing their enrollment pipeline.

On the majors being cut or compressed, the humanities are represented, unsurprisingly.  Languages being cut is typical, although I’m surprised at Spanish, since it remains the overwhelmingly most popular language taught in the US.  Squeezing political science, history and philosophy together certainly fits national enrollment trends (for example).  Cutting education (middle school and secondary education) makes sense, given the region’s aging demographics.  We can expect these curricular trends to continue.

I’m not sure what to make of axing recreation, social work, sport and wellness.  My sense is that those fields are in demand.  There may be local challenges I don’t grasp.  Cutting chemistry and physics: I suspect this is either a question of costs (these are relatively expensive to offer) or declining enrollment, perhaps because students would prefer studying those at a university or polytechnic, rather than at a religiously-focused liberal arts college, especially when New England offers to many alternatives.

There’s a story about the queen sacrifice process which is hard to make out from a distance.  On the one hand, in 2017 there was a major crisis when the entire faculty senate resigned, citing tensions over governance.  On the other, an official statement describes a large (26 person) committee spending a lot of time researching and wrestling with problems, which suggests at least some community process.

I am impressed both by Gordon’s market analysis and their intention to get ahead of trends before they hit.  It’s a good example of a future oriented strategy.

At the same time I’m saddened by the human losses, including those suffered by faculty, staff, and students.

Overall, the queen sacrifice seems to remain a viable strategy for some American colleges and universities.  I would expect to see more of these in at least the short and medium term future.

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12 Responses to Another college commits to a queen sacrifice

  1. Jim says:

    I think you could make an argument that this is not really a queen sacrifice – something where desperation causes you to make a risky play to survive. This seems to be a well-planned move where resources are being reallocated to provide the services perceived to be in demand in anticipation of the market moving. Generally, I’d call this strategic thinking and a smart play. The human cost part of the equation is especially tough but nothing that business doesn’t deal with every day. It’s just our industry basically hires people for life which makes reductions especially painful as those people really don’t have paths to continue their careers. At the end of the day, with forecasts talking about 100s of colleges closing or contracting as demand recedes, it is the notion of lifetime employment, as much as education, that is at risk.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Jim, I take your point about this apparently not being done from panic – although I’m not sure about their enrollment #s.

      Lifetime employment: hasn’t adjunctification already eaten into that?

  2. Christopher Davis says:

    Have you done a morning after analysis? How many of these Queen’s sacrifices strategies actually lead to a significant prolonging of the game? Cuts are only a temporary reprieve unless a school can truly right size into a footprint that matches its financial revenue.

    I wonder what happens to enrollment especially new enrollment after these cuts. Does the negative association of cuts translate into lower starts?

    The student decision-making funnel of majors is an interesting one in the liberal arts since you don’t declare a major until the second half of the second year. Students typically are attracted to the institution, and then choose a major from the menu. If my hypothesis is correct, changing majors should not reduce starts.

    I do like the innovation around more interdiscplinary degrees. That has the potential to be a differentiator.

    What is your label for the pumping up of graduate programs? I see this often as an accreditation peer reviewer asked to approve the addition of grad programs.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good questions, Christopher.
      Morning after: I have only looked at a few, and need to claw out the time to assess a bunch of them.
      Pumping up grad programs… hm, you mean a metaphor?

      • Christopher Davis says:

        I don’t think I meant it as a metaphor.

        The common strategy for liberal arts colleges is to add new professional master’s programs as a means to (hopefully) expand their audience.

        Maybe subconsciously there is a reference to the old SNL skits with the bodybuilders who promised to “pump you up.”

        Schools are pumping money into launching these new programs even when an OPM is involved in hopes of pumping up enrollment.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    To put it more bluntly, faculty salaries are no longer a fixed cost.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Because the majority are adjuncts?

      • Dahn Shaulis says:

        Yes. And with online education, class size can theoretically be infinite. When robots can grade at higher levels, will there even be a need for teachers at non-elite schools?

        • Christopher Davis says:

          What about the MOOCs at elite schools? What about large lecture classes at elite institutions?

          At some of the non-elite schools where I have been an administrator/faculty, we limited section size not just because of grading, but also to create engagement with students.

          I also think discussion boards get unwieldy when class size is too large.

          I am not suggesting that all “non-elite” schools will follow this practice, but I don’t think your generalization is valid.

          • Dahn Shaulis says:

            What numbers are you talking about for max class size? 50? And at some point, can you see bots grading?

          • Christopher Davis says:

            My first school capped online enrollment at 15-18. My second to last school we split sections around 25. My last school we would go as high as 40, but that rarely happened.

            Grading bots would be great…but…I don’t think it will happen anytime soon in an effective way. Sure, people will do it, because people do dumb things all the time.

            First, if you create authentic assignments that are performance-based, it will be harder to train AI because of the variety of assignments. If you use objective tests, then bots can grade now…and should.

            As often happens with technology, we can automate bad processes. If grading is mechanical by humans with little value added, then a machine can learn to do it. If we focus on sentence structure and grammar, machines already do that. If we have assignments that are close-ended with one correct answer, then we can train machines to look for those answers. If we have assignments that value creativity and ask for proposed solutions to wicked problems, then it will be much harder for machines to evaluate solutions.

            Second, somewhere I have an article from an exercise in Japan. A company created an AI to be a creative director on an ad campaign. They trained it with years of award winning ads. They then put the AI in competition with a human creative director. The actual content was all human created. The AI won when the ad was reviewed by a panel of advertising experts. The AI ad, though, was not successful with non-experts. The lesson is obvious if you are not an AI person…your model is only good for what you trained it for. What would we train machine graders to do?

            Also, good teaching is not simply a grade. It is feedback to support improved performance including motivation. Those elements are going to be harder to engineer.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            These are good points.

            It may be that mass scale and automated grading will become the province of un-elite education.

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