How Enrollment-Based Budgeting Works Against Innovation and Change

For the past couple of years I’ve been directing one of Mason’s interdisciplinary academic programs (Global Affairs). I have learned a great deal about interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching, about how to build an MA program from scratch (to 50 students in three years), and how decisions made at the top of the administrative pyramid influence what can and can’t be done at the level of the academic unit.

It’s this latter point that I want to address today, because it’s been on my mind a lot lately, not only because of what I’ve been writing about online courses, but also because I’ve been immersed in our annual academic assessment process. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a believer in the value of authentic academic assessment (as opposed to reliance on student evaluations…which have their place, just not as proxy data for learning gains). So, I don’t mind going through these assessment exercises, largely because I find ways to use the exercise to push my program to get better at what we do.

The report I just submitted on our BA program points to a glaring weakness in our ability to assess whether our undergraduates are learning what we tell them they’ll learn when they enroll in our major. For what it’s worth, I’m confident that the vast majority of them have excellent academic experiences, but that confidence is based upon anecdotal evidence, not on data gleaned from solid assessment.

Why is that? The program I inherited three years ago offers one, count’m one, course to our undergraduate students: Global Affairs 101. Every other course they take, they take in other academic programs across the university [degree requirements]. What’s missing from our curriculum is a capstone course, standard in most majors, that would afford us the opportunity to assess our students’ progress from that 101 course through all those other courses in other programs.

Why no capstone, you might reasonably ask? The answer lies in the issue I proposed at the top of this entry. George Mason, like many, many institutions of higher education, works on an enrollment-based budgeting model. At some places that model is very strict…enrollments go up, get more money; enrollments go down, get less. We’re not quite that strict, but in general terms, that’s how it works. Each academic unit’s relative success is measured, in part, by how well we do relative to our “seat targets.”

To my mind there are clear merits to this approach to budgeting and clear downsides. One of the downsides is that innovation (or in the case of my program, assessment) can be stifled by the model. Here’s how it works. In order for Global Affairs to mount a capstone course, we would likely need two additional tenure track faculty positions to go with our current roster of one (plus 1.5 term faculty members and the equivalent of .5 adjuncts for 750 students). Why two positions? We typically graduate around 200 or so students each year and such a course would need to be taught in small sections (20-25 students), so that works out to around two full time people who do nothing but teach the capstone seminar.

So just ask the Dean/Provost for two positions, you might say. Ah, but that’s where the enrollment-based budgeting model gets in the way of change. If we were to get those positions, the 200 “seats” they would teach in a given academic year would not really be enough to cover the cost of their positions and those 200 “seats” would be enrollments that Global Affairs took away from other programs in our college. Were you the chair of one of those programs, you might just resent the fact that the university was giving my program scarce tenure track jobs to take enrollments away from you…a double whammy.

Now, I think, the problem becomes obvious. When university academic budgets are based on enrollments, program directors and department chairs necessarily become mercantilists rather than capitalists. The budget becomes a zero-sum game.

To make my point, I’ve painted the picture in the starkest terms. At Mason, and most other places, it is rarely that stark. But it remains the case that such a model does stifle innovation and change.

Given the seeming rush toward online education, it will be quite interesting (to me anyway) to see if this enrollment-based budgeting model becomes more entrenched, or if it begins to break down. I suspect the former is much more likely than the latter.

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3 Responses to How Enrollment-Based Budgeting Works Against Innovation and Change

  1. I am curious about your thoughts on innovation in the academy. Putting aside the (almost overwhelming) discussions about MOOCs, do you see opportunities for innovation in the large intro classes you mention? On our campus, we are inundated with a “doing more with less” ideology and I am curious how you satisfy your desire to innovate when faced with the lack of new faculty positions. Thank you for the interesting post!

  2. Mills says:

    Hi Evan: Thanks for the response and the question. I think there are a number of examples of how faculty members have been innovating in large classes that meet in the analog world while achieving great results. One of those is the introductory chemistry class developed at Notre Dame by Dennis Jacobs (now a provost). His class, which was among the first to use the now reasonably ubiquitous “clicker” systems, achieved stunning results in a large classroom environment. That class is described in detail (in a Web 1.0 format) here.

    Another good example, is the introductory musicology course taught by Elizabeth Barkely at Foothills College in Palo Alto. Her course was a complete reconfiguration of the standard version of the class and ended up being the largest and most popular course at her college. That experiment is described (also in Web 1.0 format) here.

    Those are just two examples. What they have in common is that in each case the instructor asked not how can I teach this class more efficiently, but rather, what are the fundamental values of my discipline and how can I use the technology (and other things) to connect my students to those values and the essential content in ways that fit with the lives the students are living, and the ways they use the technology. Both were developed back in the late 1990s, hence my reference to Web 1.0 above. What that means, to my mind, is that even with those much more limited technological resources, these instructors were able to do some pretty incredible things.

    And what they DID NOT do was video tape their lectures and push them out online for free.

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