College Jobs, Never Easy, Have Become Pressure Cookers
By Jennifer Howard
W. Kent Barnds loves his job. But with all the pressures facing higher education these days, it’s not getting any easier.
Mr. Barnds is vice president for enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, in Illinois. He’s been there 10 years but has worked in higher education since he graduated from college, in the early 1990s.
A lot has changed in those two-plus decades, and Mr. Barnds’s job has expanded remarkably. Like other administrators and faculty and staff members on campuses around the country, he is learning to live in a world of tighter budgets, swelling regulations, and ever more assessment and competition.
"The pressure’s greater on enrollment officers for a whole host of reasons, but we’re not alone," he says. "There’s increased pressure on every senior leader on a college campus."
The squeeze to do more, often with less, has been felt throughout higher education. The proportion of tenure-track jobs continues to dwindle, the precariousness of choosing the professorial life reflected in the statistic that some 76 percent of faculty members now work as adjuncts. In the sciences, researchers have been learning to deal with little to no growth in federal support for a decade now; the budget of the National Institutes of Health has fallen about 25 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2003. Their colleagues in the humanities, meanwhile, feel the weight of increased expectations.
Kathryn A. Conrad, an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas, values the freedom to teach and research that her job gives her but worries about how to balance all the demands on her time. "I want to make a difference in the classroom, in my service, and in my writing, but it is far too easy to become bogged down in paperwork and meetings that don’t have a lasting impact," she says via email.
According to Ms. Conrad, many faculty members now feel obliged to take on administrative tasks involving assessment, recruitment, or university task forces. "Most of these initiatives are well intentioned, but there is only so much time, and no new resources to accomplish them," she says. At the same time, many faculty members feel they have less say over curricular and other core questions than they did in the past.
The squeeze to do more, often with less, has been felt throughout higher education.
Administrators, too — in admissions, financial aid, legal affairs, and athletics, as well as at the level of president and provost — face a growing burden, even when their jobs are secure. One bright side: Along with the added pressures come opportunities, at least for some, to become more involved in top-level planning and to help sharpen or reimagine the driving mission of their institutions.
At Augustana, Mr. Barnds has felt a substantial increase in job intensity since the recession of 2008. "There’s less margin for error," he says. "Family income really hasn’t rebounded. People aren’t broadening their horizons." If more students want or need to stick closer to home, that can cut into the pool of potential applicants, particularly for an institution with a small or local profile. Those students who do apply come prepared to do more negotiating over financial assistance, he says.
Adding to the pressure, it seems everyone — other administrators and faculty members, as well as trustees and development officers — is now paying closer attention to enrollment numbers than ever before. "You can’t walk across a campus without people asking you, ‘How are the numbers?’" Mr. Barnds says. For some enrollment managers, that leads to burnout. He has responded by embracing new roles: communications and marketing, giving advice about the college’s website, and strategic planning.
"I certainly feel I’m involved at a different level than I would have been 10 years ago," Mr. Barnds says. "There’s a lot more give and take necessary."
Being able to make that kind of big-picture, strategic contribution is not just a rhetorical or intellectual exercise but a matter of survival in a tough market, according to David W. Strauss and Richard A. Hesel. They’re principals with Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, a consulting outfit that provides market research and strategy advice to colleges.
"There’s a class system among institutions," Mr. Strauss says. A handful of elites control their own destinies, while those at the bottom are most susceptible to market pressure. Meanwhile, "middle-class" institutions get squeezed, with public flagships as well as smaller private colleges feeling the pinch. That affects almost everybody on campus, from top administrators to junior faculty members.
"When the government of a state decides it’s going to take $350 million out of your budget, that hurts," Mr. Strauss says. "You have the public and political sectors beginning to impinge philosophically on the institution."
For some public universities, like those in Wisconsin and North Carolina, budget and political pressures have been a matter of high-stakes public drama lately. In the case of Wisconsin, the faculty’s say in governing the university and even the fundamental principle of tenure have been called into question.
Even at institutions where the situation isn’t so dire, budget constrictions have set off waves of strategic rethinking and adjustments, adding new complexities to already complex jobs.
In Maryland, the state uses a formula to calculate how much money to give to its community colleges; the percentage used in that formula declined from 23.6 percent in the 2010 fiscal year to 20.6 percent six years later, says Thomas E. Knapp, vice president for administrative services at Prince George’s Community College. That doesn’t sound like a drastic drop, but it means that the colleges collectively have millions less to work with than they probably would have had the percentage at least held steady, Mr. Knapp says. His institution also receives less local support today, with the county contributing 29.7 percent of the college’s operating budget, down from 33.5 percent six years ago.
It’s not getting cheaper to run a college, either. Just keeping hardware and software more or less up to date eats up a lot of money. "Raising tuition and fees on students is the last card we want to play in building a budget," Mr. Knapp says. "So in turn you’re having to make sacrifices in other areas."
The challenge for Charlene M. Dukes, Prince George’s president, and her staff is how to make the new numbers work without losing sight of the main goal. "We’re all focused on college completion, college success," she says. "Even as we’re looking at that, we’re resetting priorities within the institution." That includes not always filling jobs that come open, scrutinizing academic offerings and student services to determine what students need and use most, and strengthening partnerships with businesses to help equip students for the work force.
Keeping up with technology has become a central issue for the college, Ms. Dukes says, as wired classrooms become the norm and students clamor for more computer-lab time. Tuition and fees have risen slightly, and federal and state regulations eat up more time than they used to. "Financial-aid regulations are pressing for all of us," she says.
Financial-aid officers everywhere have seen their job definitions expand — sometimes uncomfortably, says Justin Draeger, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. More and more they’re drawn into enrollment planning — determining the makeup of their student population — and away from their traditional focus on need-based aid. The desire to be more hands-on in shaping enrollment has spread from private colleges to public ones, according to Mr. Draeger. "The strategies that have the most impact hinge on how a school utilizes its financial resources in the form of tuition discounts and scholarships, which inevitably involves the financial-aid office," he says. For financial-aid officers, "it’s creating more potential conflict."
"The reality of the job today is you’re also the CEO of a significant-size operation."
Mr. Draeger sounds a note heard throughout academe: As federal and state regulations have grown more complex, creating a culture of assessment and accountability, administrators have had to work harder on multiple fronts to meet the increased demands of their jobs. Because colleges do not want to lose federal student-aid eligibility, "we’re seeing financial-aid officers take on a much heavier role in compliance," he says. (See related story.)
Once students arrive on campus, they become the concern of people like Allen W. Groves, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Virginia, a job he’s held since 2007. Mr. Groves’s predecessor was known as "the walking dean," always out and about among the students, he says. That kind of interaction is much harder to pull off now.
"I have worked very hard to make myself accessible to students," Mr. Groves says. "But the reality of the job today is you’re also the CEO of a significant-size operation." His team includes seven associate deans, five assistant deans, and a number of program and area coordinators. "You’re managing a lot of very sensitive issues," he says.
Some of those issues — including Rolling Stone’s now-discredited account of an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house — have been painfully public for the university in recent months. Beyond the headlines, the regulatory environment has become much more intense in the past few years, Mr. Groves says. He rattles off a list of regulations that his office must be expert in: Title IX, the federal gender-equity law that’s been at the center of numerous campus assault complaints and controversies lately; the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or Ferpa; and the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report crimes on campus.
That’s a sea change from what the job involved a decade ago. "And I don’t think the regulatory climate is going to change," he says. Mr. Groves’s office also deals with free-speech issues, and he serves on the university’s threat-assessment team and its athletics-oversight committee. While those are important, he says, "it severely restricts the time you have to sit down with an individual student."
Students also remain the focus of Jon Fagg’s job as senior associate athletic director at the University of Arkansas, but his job has expanded and become more holistic. The son of a college coach, Mr. Fagg remembers when players were expected simply to follow directions. "Today’s student-athletes want to be part of the process," he says. "We talk about preparing them for the rest of their lives."
That means being aware of what students have to deal with off the playing field, at home as well as in the classroom: learning disabilities, special dietary needs, academic and personal struggles. "It has really evolved into the era of student well-being," he says. "That’s a term we use a lot at Arkansas."
As a compliance officer responsible for making sure the university follows the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules, Mr. Fagg thinks a lot about regulations. For him, that’s eased up a little as the association has revamped those rules. "The NCAA rule book for a while had been bogged down in some minute details, for instance defining how many institutional logos could be on a postcard we send to a prospect," he says. Being freed from some of those details is liberating, but it also raises expectations, he says, since he and his colleagues often don’t have an easy (if sometimes arbitrary) rule to follow.
At Northwestern University, Thomas G. Cline, vice president and general counsel for almost 14 years, is also feeling an uptick in pressure. "The number of demands on our time has skyrocketed," he says. A surge in Title IX and sexual-assault cases takes up a lot of staff time, along with the usual legal activity — employment claims, real-estate actions, even lawsuits challenging grades — that universities get drawn into. (See related story.)
"No. 1 on everybody’s list is this issue of compliance," Mr. Cline says. The agencies making the rules don’t always make them clear. "We get precious little guidance, and there are a lot of competing pressures," he says. "It’s a pretty daunting task."
Not daunting enough to make him want to quit — he says he loves the variety and working for one client whose mission he believes in. Nor does he have trouble finding job candidates for his legal team. It helps that university lawyers have good support networks, he says.
For instance, he and a group of fellow lawyers from the Midwestern consortium known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation meet regularly to talk about issues of common concern. When something bad happens, he gets calls of support from colleagues.
"We all know these issues run across the country, and it’s just a question of who’s going to have one pop up at any given time," he says. "There are times when it seems pretty overwhelming, but then you catch your breath and you go on, because it’s a great job."