Hysteresis In Action

With industry disruption comes inevitable change.

For our program, this has led to a transition and reorganization. Regardless of context, the effects of organizational downsizing force the redistribution of workload. The upside of this situation is cross-training and the opportunity to learn new skills, making employees more marketable in the long run. A few of the downsides are that work quality will suffer and/or a certain amount of the workload will simply not get done. Doing more with less is only possible up to a point. Eventually, non-essential workload will fall to the wayside.

Let’s move this into context.

In a conversation the other day with a senior university administrator, we were discussing the continued impasse of the state budget – gotta love Illinois. Going into its third year without a budget and by extension appropriations, the University and academic departments have had to tighten their belts. They have adapted to budget shortfalls by not extending tenure-track appointments and eating through their budgetary surpluses (this is what my department did for the past three years). That said, there is this general sentiment that things will return to normal once the budget is passed. The unfortunate reality is that even if/when a budget is approved, it will come with significant cuts to operating budgets.

Budget reductions passed down to departments can only be absorbed through cuts to instructional costs. If 80% of your budget is in tenure-track salaries (the most expensive, fixed-cost employees), then the cuts will come in the form of larger class sizes and reduced number of graduate students (typically used to groom the next generation of thought leaders) – all of which decrease the quality of instruction – and by extension the impact and reputation of the institution – for years to come.

The benchmark for the service provided, in this case quality of instructional programming, will be re-set to a new, lower level from here on out because of a significant disruption in the market.

This is hysteresis.

The challenging part is accepting the new reality.

For the University, the implications are still somewhat nebulous. If we apply this same concept to our IEP contexts, we are already seeing the effects of reduced resources.

The IEP boom years of 2005-2014 were accompanied by an increase in regulation and policy, along with mission expansion. The wonderful upside was an emphasis on professionalization of our services and the industry as a whole. Looking back at the program administration literature, one definitely sees it as something of a Golden Era.

The current problem is that reduced financial resources are forcing program administrators to critically examine resource allocation to determine the true cost-benefit of effort, a challenge given the years-of-plenty mindset within a departmental ecology. At several points over the past few months, my faculty have made comments about concerns to instructional quality.

Yes. This is a concern. More than a concern, it is a fact we will need to come to terms with.

Hysteresis tells us that our system has been re-set to a lower standard moving forward. Perhaps this is a bit heretical for a leader to admit, but I believe embracing the situation at the administrative level can help our units pivot and adapt more quickly to the reality of our industry.

If our core mission is instructional quality, we need to focus on the essence.

The more productive questions are:

  1. What non-essential workload came with the unimpeded growth?
  2. Does that workload have a statistically significant impact on student learning (or recruitment/retention in profit-driven contexts)? and
  3. Is it time to let that workload lapse?

Moving forward, IEPs will be hard-pressed to make the argument that supporting workload for an assortment of bells and whistles has a tangible effect on learning outcomes – or recruitment/retention. Indeed, the new era will be one that scrutinizes student achievement and its independent variables.

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As always, please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss.