Moody's Is Right, and Wrong About Higher Education

This January, Moody's Investors Service issued a negative outlook for the nation's colleges and universities for the fifth straight year. The credit reporting agency's perennial gloomy forecast underscores the challenge academic leaders face daily: preserving excellence while a still-limping economy exerts downward pressure on revenues from virtually every source.

But this year, the agency's report was bleaker than ever, amended to include the country's elite, best-financed institutions. To preserve current programming and ensure funding for future initiatives, Moody's urged "bolder actions" on the part of campus leaders from all sectors to take on what it identified as "the entrenched cost drivers" of the sector's business model: shared governance, classroom instruction, tenure, and student life services.

Indeed, these volatile times require vision and courage to make the high-stakes decisions that will shape college campuses for generations to come. But I would argue that Moody's prescription for reform is counter productive. The real test for educational leaders is how to solicit diverse opinions in our decision-making as we assess the benefit of bedrock services to provide an excellent educational experience for our students. The entrenched cost drivers Moody's cites are, in fact, fundamental to our principles and our enduring value as institutions.

Shared governance, when appropriately implemented, assures that transformative change is embraced by the entire community. A decade ago, when TCNJ overhauled its entire curriculum, faculty and staff played key roles in strengthening and deepening the intellectual engagement of students and professors. A strong emphasis on both faculty and student scholarship, for example, was a critical contribution that allowed us to enrich our classes, create research opportunities for our undergraduates, and embellish our brand. It also proved a wise investment, evidenced by an uptick in research dollars, an increasingly competitive application pool for student and faculty slots, and greater success in placing our students in top graduate programs and jobs, thus cementing their loyalty.

The kneejerk opposition to tenure one often hears is simply uninformed. In and of itself, tenure is not costly - long-term service is. Nor does tenure, in and of itself, erode productivity. Our tenured faculty do not inhabit a competition-free zone, but contend with newer hires for research dollars and students. Some of our senior faculty remain our most productive scholars and our most sought after mentors. Indeed, tenure remains a key incentive to attract and retain exceptional faculty, whom we value for their scholarship, their experience in dealing with students, and their commitment to the institution. We count on the tenured faculty for regular input into campus matters, and appreciate their unvarnished opinions about the direction of the college. It was the senior tenured faculty leadership who drove much of the success of the curricular innovation at TCNJ.

In addition to top-notch classroom instruction, student life services such as residential education, tutoring, academic advising, psychological and health services, and other mechanisms of support, are important factors in the success of our students. In keeping students on track, working to capacity, and graduating on time, we save money for families and taxpayers. In the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement, about 84 percent of first-year students reported that substantial support from faculty and staff members led to their academic success, while 88 percent of seniors said they'd consulted with faculty about their careers. We attribute our consistently high graduation rate of 86 percent within six years in part to the success of these programs. Critically, counseling also allows us to better understand and support students of concern.

Since the economy soured more than five years ago, TCNJ has done everything possible to cut spending and optimize services without undermining essential programs and practices. We have consolidated functions, left administrative posts unfilled, and shaved energy costs by tailoring our schedule so that we take certain buildings offline at times of peak power usage. We've raised revenues by increasing enrollment and better utilizing our space. The College is currently working with a private developer on a project called Campus Town that will provide us with student housing, a new gym and bookstore, needed retail amenities, and an annual ground lease beginning at $400,000 and growing in subsequent years.

As campus stakeholders meet to update the College's strategic plan, we are encouraging everyone to think entrepreneurially about programs and revenues, and to consider new ideas and technologies with an open mind. We are beginning to incorporate online instruction into some of our classes, while we maintain that students learn most powerfully face-to-face. We will carefully assess the effectiveness of these initiatives, which are in fact quite costly. In the end, our fiscal solutions must be aligned with our mission and strengths.

As a college president, it is my job to think long-term, always bearing in mind that what we do here is not simply ready our students for their first entry-level job. We're preparing them for something much more important: to be nimble and engaged citizens with the intellectual skills, compassion, and resolve to make meaningful contributions wherever life takes them.