College needs new approach to budget cuts

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[media-credit name=”Carlos Magana/Staff” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]American may be awash in good news about an economic recovery that is spreading across the land like spring flowers poking up through dirty snow. California, however, is still bundled up in its long, cold, lonely winter with no signs of recovery in sight. Our Golden State is still painting the town red with barrels of red ink.

With an unexpected $149 million mid-year cut to the state community college system budget in February, Southwestern College had to quickly slice away another $2.4 million. Our school has taken nearly $8 million in state cuts this year, piled on top of reductions from the past two. And when it rains, it pours.  Dr. Melinda Nish and her embattled crew expect the state to lop another $5 million in fiscal year 2012-13.

New cuts are going to be painful – very painful.  Virtually all of the easier choices are gone. An institution facing such a dilemma has two ways out.  It can cut expenses or increase revenues. Unfortunately, former superintendent Raj “Chop” Chopra took a one-dimensional approach and tried to cut his way out of the problem. Even more unfortunate, one of the things he cut was the college’s grant writing and fund raising capacity. Last year’s superintendent, Denise Whittaker, and the new board majority reassembled an institutional advancement department, but developing partnerships and fund raising relationships takes time. SWC may be two-three years away from any large-scale breakthroughs on the revenue generation side of the ledger, but we are counting on Linda Gilstrap’s team to put the pedal to the floor and getting Southwestern back into the race.

Dr. Nish made her first controversial decision at the March 14 governing board meeting when she successfully convinced a 3-2 board to back her plan to substantially increase the salaries of vice presidents. Her decision was logical, data-driven and by the book, and her argument is compelling. (And props to her for sharing her thinking with the college.) Business school 101 says that to recruit and retain talented people an organization must have competitive salaries. Most employees understand the importance of attracting quality upper management and virtually no one at Southwestern wants weak or corrupt VPs like Nick Alioto, Michael Kerns and Mark Meadows ever again.

That said, Dr. Nish’s timing was problematic. Raising the salaries of top administrators while the district is negotiating with faculty and staff to accept substantial pay cuts that could stretch out over three years is a recipe for unrest. Without consulting a pollster like Gallup or Field it is very clear that a solid majority of SWC employees do not support the decision. Our own editorial board was split down the middle, with the general consensus being that Nish made a sound decision at the wrong time. SWC could have saved money, time and anguish by hiring two very talented interim vice presidents – Robert Unger and Kathy Tyner – as the full-time veeps in human resources and academic affairs, respectively. Nish may have won the battle but lost the war. There seems very little chance that either employee union will now accept pay cuts without a bruising fight.

Nish may have some skills and contacts that we urge her to put to use immediately. Unfunded California, WASC and federal mandates are crushing this college by forcing it to hire staff, spend money and divert energy into the creation of a dump truck load of bureaucratic reports that, while interesting, are clearly having little impact on the quality of education. While most reasonable people agree that accountability is important, there does come a point where enough is enough. SWC has expensive administrators with staffs whose primarily responsibilities are to generate reports and respond to accreditation requirements. The Editorial Board of The Sun urges our new and well-connected superintendent to lead an effort in California to streamline and eliminate as many of these cumbersome reports as possible in the name of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and common sense.

Southwestern College needs to become more entrepreneurial. We need to empower and unleash the hundreds of bright people who work here to write grants, form partnerships and find creative ways to keep us afloat. Linda Hensley, our new director of institutional research, planning and grants, along with Lillian Leopold, our multi-talented new director of public information, should lead staff development seminars on Opening Day 2012 in Mayan Hall to teach employees the basics of grant writing and show them places to look for funding. Nish needs to make an exception to the travel ban now in place and send a dozen administrators and faculty to Miami-Dade College in Florida to see how it became a partnership powerhouse. Maybe we could do the same in this corner of the nation.

Some other ideas to consider:

  • Closing and selling the Otay Mesa campus. This ill-conceived bit of empire building has become SWC’s white elephant on the far-flung and lonely badlands of the Otay Mesa. It is time to cut our losses.
  • Creating a branding strategy. As the region’s only college, SWC could have some fun and make some money by raising its profile and putting the Jaguar brand on countless products. We will never be Ohio State or USC, but SWC has never come close to realizing its potential as a South County brand. We need to market SWC’s signature programs such as Mariachi, cross country, MESA, concert choir and nursing.
  • Changing fonts. University of Wisconsin leaders saved $10,000 in ink by switching its default font to Century Gothic. Hey, every penny counts.
  • Close the main campus Fridays-Sundays. Many profitable corporations work Monday-Thursday for 10 hours, and save 20 percent on operating overhead by closing on Fridays.
  • Recruiting international students.  Our UC system is already selling many of its seats to higher-paying students from other countries. SWC might try a similar strategy, as long as the revenue stays here and supports South Bay students.

Southwestern College is tiptoeing through a minefield right now, and may be for another two-three years. Administrators, faculty, staff and students are in for a rough ride. When money gets tight people get uptight. We urge the college community to stay calm, think creatively, remain civil and stay united like we were when we stared down Chopra and the accreditation threat. We have done great things here under tough circumstances before, we can do it again.

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