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Testimony to Mills College Board of Trustees: Professor of Sociology Dan Ryan

This statement was sent by Professor of Sociology Dan Ryan to Mills College President Beth Hillman and the Board of Trustees ahead of the Board’s open meeting on June 22.

Dan Ryan, professor of sociology and Lorry I. Lokey chair in ethics
(Photo courtesy of Mills College)Dan Ryan, professor of sociology and Lorry I. Lokey chair in ethics

Dear Katie, Beth, and Board Members
Thank you for all your hard work over the past weeks (and beyond). I am sorry I cannot be at this week’s “testimony” session.  With your indulgence I’d like to offer some remarks for your consideration. I’m working on a book called “How to Run a College Like a Business without Running a College ‘Like a Business’” and some of these ideas are drawn from there and some of that book is “inspired by real events.”

It’s Real, But Are We Managing the Wrong Problem?

Like most of my colleagues I have not been read in to all the details, but I fully appreciate the very practical aspects of our crisis: both the concrete cash flow problems and the fundamental unsustainable character of status quo. I’m not a do-nothing-er; I’m a do-the-right-thing-er.

That said, I’ve made a mantra of “we have a revenue problem, not an expense problem.” Throughout this process one of the most alarming things is that we seem to be poorly managing the wrong problem. We have been doing this for several years and the FSP continues the pattern.

I’ve written about this in a blog post called “Managing the Wrong Problem.” The most important point of that post is that everything we do needs to start from the recognition that there is no right smaller size for the college. Unless we transform ourselves into a third tier online career college or some such, there is no sustainable business model with fewer than something like, I think, 1750-2000 total enrollment. Short of that, any school we’d be willing to call “Mills” will have deep structural deficits forever.

Downsizing one’s way back to profitability is hard when you have real turn-around experts and you have highly favorable conditions. We have neither. We have a relatively inexperienced management team, we don’t have consensus around what our core product is, we don’t really understand our markets, we are more disruptee than disruptor, our team is rife with unrecognized goal ambiguity and goal contradiction. Whatever else comes out of your meetings, I hope you will reject the poorly conceived reorganization and restructuring plans that were thrown together to rationalize and take advantage of budget cutting.

No New Business Model Here

For several years we have been talking about generating a “new sustainable business model.” But NOTHING that is currently on the table even hints at a new business model. In fact, we do not seem yet to have acknowledged our current business model which is to keep expanding into marginal product lines that are only “profitable” because of lower priced adjuncts. A primary problem with this approach is that it obscures market information and attenuates the imperatives to improve our core “product line” and brand identity. Our business model blinds us to the business information we need and the deeply flawed “academic costing analysis” obscures even more. Indeed, the more adjuncts a program has, the better it looks.

One of the biggest reasons the FSP as written is a bad idea is that it simply doubles down on this business model. We’ve already heard, for example, that we will still have philosophy courses this fall, even if we fire all of our philosophers. Others have addressed the ethical, social justice, and higher ed politics reasons to be critical of such a move; I am just calling attention to the financial wrong-headedness. The circumstances DO demand a rethinking, but the FSP and “NextMills” are not rethinking. It is irresponsible to do this level of organizational violence to the institution for so little fundamental change and for numbers that barely sum to zero (and may well no longer in a few months time); no business-minded person would sanction such a much-ado-about-nothing “strategy.”

I would submit that we need to stop intimating that we are cutting our way to a “new Mills” when really we are first and foremost trying to “make payroll.” We should be honest about the task at hand being how to make payroll without killing the institution.  Dressing up these necessary measures of desperation in “we are making Mills better for tomorrow” rhetoric is an embarrassment. Those of us who have engaged in that kind of talk have sacrificed so much of their credibility that I wonder if there will be an after-the-crisis role for them at the college. I have confidence that the smart minds on the board will not be bamboozled by the doublespeak we have been listening to these past many weeks.

Rahm Emannuel often gets credited with something that apparently originated with Churchill: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not before.” The sentiment can be either bold or cynical. At Mills over the past month or two, it’s been cynical. Incoherent solutions in search of a problem are justified by the imperative of an emergency: “no time for debate or more thinking, something must be done now!”  You don’t need to know too much history to know where that leads.

Are You Comfortable Ending People’s Careers Based on Flawed Analysis?

The process that has been followed to analyze the curriculum and identify layoff targets embarrasses me as social scientist and member of the Mills community.  The so-called Austen analysis was flawed from the start. I and others engaged the original consultant who sold Mills an off the shelf method designed to help provosts cut faculty with cover, but he was impervious to criticism, committed to the idea that faculty not liking his work meant that he was right; his presentation to the faculty was one of the worst presentations I have seen in my entire professional life. Audience members were appalled; and more so when the administration appeared to swallow the thing hook, line, and sinker.  Provost Washington did not understand what was wrong with the analysis; her insight went no deeper than to acknowledge that the data it depended on was bad. The same analytical tack was followed by this years “team provost” seemingly oblivious to the fact that what was wrong the first time did not somehow magically get better by being left on the shelf for a few months.

I’ve outlined a number of problems with the analysis in a blog post “The Problem with Departmental Revenue/Cost Analysis” which I invite you to read. The take-away: the purpose of the analysis is to help a college understand the relationship between the demand for academic programs and the cost of providing them, but the method builds in bias and distortion on both the cost and revenue side. It bakes age discrimination, the incentive of faculty to game the curriculum (by getting their courses to count as general education requirements, for example), and accidents of faculty hiring timing into the results casting grave doubts on the use of the results in program to program comparisons, exactly the task for which it is intended.  I’ve worked on this data for over four years; I raised questions with provosts and associate provosts for two years but was generally dismissed as yet another obstructive faculty member.

Once the team identified what departments to target, a methodologically dubious “rubric” was used to figure out which faculty members to fire. I’ve analyzed this approach in a blog post, “Bad Methods Produce NonActionable Answers.” The gist of that critique is the method violates the most basic standards of measurement and method. We are handing lawyers a gift with this; I’ll be first in line testifying on behalf of those suing Mills for wrongful dismissal.

The fact that no one “up the chain” seems the least bit critical about these methods suggests to me a deep problem in our structure. On the administrative side, anything a subordinate submits seems taken on face value as valid. And on the other hand, when faculty with actual expertise in an area make suggestions or offer criticisms they are frequently ignored or dismissed as obstructionist naysayers. This is not a recipe for organizational excellence.

MillsNext is MillsAlready

Reading the MillsNext document was, next to reading the FSP, the most disappointing read of the season for me.  For starters, it’s vague and derivative – a nothing new under the sun kind of idea, that is unlikely to move any of the needles we need to be moving. Everything listed appears to be pretty much just things that a subset of the faculty are already intent on doing or championing. Any coherence is ex post. And it is worth noting that the recent tuition reset research seems to show a “low importance for decision” for study abroad, small classes, 4+1 programs, and women’s college, each of which is at least related to MN. Even the press release touted its derivative character citing Agnes Scott College as having done something that we were thinking of imitating.

The Reset Conversation

Hats off to us for doing some actual research before making this decision, but again, I’m not persuaded we are posing hard questions for ourselves. We seem instead to be fetishizing the reset idea and searching for reasons it might be a good idea. I’d counsel extreme caution and push for answer to some hard questions. I’ve shared a set of 18 questions with Kathy Baugher. Two issues stand out for me: do not pretzel the institution for a benefit that best case models put in the 10% improvement neighborhood; pay heed to the opportunity cost – if we tuition reset a whole bunch of us will be doing a whole bunch of stuff to make it work. What we won’t be doing is putting any energy at all into the project of actually bringing down the real cost of higher education. We should be committed to inventing ways to increase pedagogical productivity so that we honestly lower the cost not just move things around and exploit the psychology of valuation.

What Should We/You Do?
  • Have some actual vision
    • Remember there is no nationally visible liberal arts college between the northern edge of Los Angeles and Portland Oregon. Each year thousands of young people migrate to the greater bay area and Oakland in particular AFTER they earn a college degree. Oakland has for a very long time been on the cutting edge of everything and it’s started to get recognition for this.
    • A gigantic swath of the country looks toward silicon valley and san francisco and sees no liberal arts college. We could change that.
    • Several years ago I was an outside reviewer for a program at Goucher College in Maryland. It had gone co-ed some 15 years before that. Enrollment was about 40% men.  I was only on campus for about an hour when I saw that it was still a women’s college.  The character at the core of what I value about Mills was alive and well in the Goucher classroom and in the hallways and athletic fields and libraries and dining halls. It’s just that there were more men there.
    • Mills lacks broad national recognition but it has deep national recognition (that is, not that many people know about it, but educated folks know of it, even if vaguely). This describes a situation ripe for effective marketing.
  • Be Courageous
    • Stop listening to people who want to drive policy with Mills to be a game piece in a social movement.
    • Stop letting the retention tail wag the enrollment dog. It’s important but do your cost-benefit homework.
    • Talk about building enrollment and revenue for at least 4 hours for each hour you spend talking about budget cuts.
    • Have the guts to ask whether it makes sense to design the college’s mission and admission strategy around a social cleavage that we are actively working to reduce.  That’s the business model mistake women’s college’s made. Are we going to do the same again but for a smaller population? Questioning that strategy does not make you _-phobic
  • Manage
    • Identify the right size for the college and design a strategy to reach it. Stop wasting time doing little things designed to get another 20 here, another 14 there. Likely as not these things cannibalize one another.
    • Demand better of our management team. How many conversations I have had with its members where a constructively critical comment was met with the insistence that people had good intentions and work hard.
  • Do Planning and Restructuring Right
    • Require each program at the college to create an 8 semester plan for course offerings and staffing that will allow them to deliver the program with zero adjuncts.  For all/mostly adjunct programs modify process.
    • Recompute program costs on the basis of such a plan with average faculty cost.
    • Budget all faculty at full amortized average cost from the start (move away from cheap younger faculty
    • Stop doing analyses that do not include all the likely costs.  For example, all the things we have been talking about for the past 4 weeks should have “melt” and “attrition” numbers attached to them.
  • Take Social Justice Seriously
    • If we are going to effectively end tenure then remove “right of return” to tenured faculty line from all administrators. It simply does not do to have two classes of faculty – the vulnerable and the immune. This is even more the case when you consider the lateral job market for individuals who have garnered administrative experience.
    • If we are going to lay off tenured faculty members, do not also abrogate practice of hiring individuals back if the classes they teach come back on line (that is, do not join that category of unsavory institutions that see faculty as only as cost and rely on technicalities to skirt fair labor practices and undermine tenure.
  • Got Strategy?
    • Steer away from the game plan that has us competing head to head with CSU and community colleges. They already do a good job at what they do and they do it at a price point we cannot actually match.
    • Create a compelling thing that we actually can become testing it against the criteria: “is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?”
    • Decouple “making payroll” from “restructuring” curriculum and academic organization, especially when these do not actually enhance the savings, they merely rationalize them. LEAD an actually productive rethinking of what Liberal Arts for the 21st Century should look like (not hard to organize – make people think and write and react).
  • Save Smartly
    • Adopt fully creative approach to instructional compensation reduction: make it possible and attractive for retirement (now and delayed), extended leaves, reduced teaching loads, additional teaching loads, etc. in combination to fund the necessary savings.