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Wait Until This Year

Wait Until This YearThe enduring quality of higher education is that each year about this time, as we kick off the academic season, we all get a chance to start over again. Whether it be the freshman who got into college by the skin of his or her teeth, the seasoned faculty sage or the overworked administrator, we all see the beginning of the academic year as a time to make amends for past shortcomings and live up to our potential as students, researchers, professors and administrative leaders.
When we heard those stirring speeches at last spring’s commencements, we left with optimistic determination that this was going to be our year. College football teams that went 0-10 last year were wont to say “wait until next year.” Today, those same teams are entering the coming season confident that they are going to go 10-0. Yes, when it comes to higher education, hope does indeed spring eternal. But even amid such gilded optimism, the real task becomes how to temper that hope with a realistic assessment of the challenges that lie ahead.
The economic crisis that has enveloped the nation is having a very precipitous impact on higher education. The number of states now operating in a deficit position is at least 40 — and counting. How will this environment affect our colleges and universities?
The impact is already being seen. Witness the draconian measures that were employed in Tennessee this summer, which resulted in closing down summer school classes. There is little doubt that similar cost-cutting measures such as larger class sizes, smaller course offerings and the use of more adjunct and part-time professors will become commonplace.
The poet and author Nikki Giovanni used to say, in talking about her childhood, that “we were poor but we were happy.” I wonder if our colleges and universities can be poor and happy. Can they do more with less? Because, as history teaches us, when the economy goes downhill, more and more people flock to the nation’s already overcrowded higher education institutions.
A realistic assessment of the challenges that lie ahead also points to the fear of impending doom that is found among many of the newest entrants to the academy. If the “last hired, first fired” model and the “last program on board, first program off board” philosophy prevail, many minorities and women, as well as their respective programs, could be in trouble. That fear and apprehension can certainly be justified given that a number of courts have sanctioned taking race off the table. Consequentially, detractors can now use the financial exigency excuse with impunity to turn back the clock of opportunity.
In light of these very real circumstances, our cover story “Power and Control” begs an essential question that will be played out on campuses throughout the coming year. That question is how the balance of campus power and control will unfold in this tough economic environment. Can faculty and administrators share governance to ensure their institutions succeed?
While the issue is daunting, the task is not impossible. In our feature story “Secrets of the Presidential Turn-Around Artist,” we profile a few stand-out college presidents whose dedication and commitment over the past decade offer prime examples of the leadership today’s institutions need to excel, especially during tough times.
Dedication and commitment can also be credited for Brenda Knight’s ascent from baseball mom to the top echelons of higher education chronicled in our feature story “Leading by Example.” As the new president of the Association of Community College Trustees, Knight’s grass-roots activities and allegiance to her community are lessons to be learned for many in the academy.
The questions raised and solutions offered in our Academic Kickoff edition provide a fitting start to this new school year. As we approach the season with optimistic determination and recall our pledge from last spring to just “wait until next year,” we have to remember that “next year” is now “this year.”   Frank Matthews

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