Reconciling Values and Dollars in an Age of Declining Resources

January 1, 2010

Now emerging from the 2008-2009 economic free-fall, academe faces a new reality, one that likely will define our fiscal landscape for some time to come. The question becomes, how will we guide ourselves in this time of limited-and limiting-resources, and how will we respond to the questions that come with this new reality? David Myers, the Director of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, offers thoughts, suggestions, ideas, and especially encouragement to department chairs and their faculty that may help navigate our current challenges. In addition to his principle-centered approach, he offers questions that lead to a very provocative idea: might we also be in a time of opportunity? 

   Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration

"Great organizations keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change) and operating strategies and cultural practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world)."
Jim Collins (2005), Good to Great and the Social Sectors

I was still navigating my way around unpacked boxes of files and books when, in the Fall of 2008, I learned that one of my first tasks as a new director would be to model 5 and 8 percent budget cuts for the school of music. This was hardly the kind of collaborative work I had hoped to be doing with faculty and staff during my first months on the job. Nevertheless, as became clear in the days following the dramatic collapse of Lehman Brothers, every sector of society, including higher education, would be subject to some degree of fiscal impact associated with declining resources and revenues.

Today, mixed and often confusing analyses and predictions permeate the media. It remains to be seen how severe the downturn ultimately may be, and when we may see some stabilizing of the economy. Though the global scale can be difficult to fathom, the closer the impact comes to our daily lives and work, the more we confront the fact that we are facing significant challenges to business as usual. After a decade or so of relative prosperity and growth, it is likely that the current decade will be one of restraint, prudence, and discipline in making limited dollars work as effectively as possible for the common good. Music units are accustomed to managing tight resources and making the most of every dollar; however, we will need to exercise greater diligence and creativity in considering how we maintain our institutional viability, fulfill our responsibilities to students, and continue to advance the place of music and musicians in the larger society. As Jim Collins reminds us, greatness requires confronting the most brutal facts of current reality and retaining unwavering faith that we will prevail.1

Many have noted that times of significant challenge generally elicit thoughtful reflection on values and goals, which in turn may inspire purposeful initiative. When John Gardner, former head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, joined Lyndon Johnson's administration to help achieve the vision of a Great Society in a time of social upheaval, he declared that "What we have before us are breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems."2 Recasting problems as opportunities requires that we maintain a sense of optimism and momentum around our fundamental guiding values while realistically confronting and managing the impact of declining resources. How successfully we negotiate this intersection of values and fiscal strategies will be key to inspiring confidence for the future among students, faculty, and staff, and in assuring the essential place of the music unit within higher education and the broader musical culture.

Values and Strategies for Curriculum and Instruction

Music instruction in higher education can be an expensive proposition. Individualized instruction, essential equipment, specialized facilities, and learning needs across diverse performing areas all drive up instructional costs, which are often covered in part by levying student fees beyond tuition. Educating music students, whether career-aspiring or elective, to thrive in an ever-expanding global musical culture frequently leads toward course inflation. The seemingly logical response to achieving depth and breadth is to add new, increasingly specific, courses to an already full curriculum. Coupled with faculty desire to teach particular interests and research, the result can be a catalogue of courses so extensive that content begins to overlap, class enrollments shrink, and degree program hours increase. Courses may be cancelled for low enrollment and, ironically, students may be forced to complete programs through substitutions and independent studies, which may increase the time required to complete degrees.

One dimension of breathless opportunity amidst shrinking budgets is to reflect on the curriculum in terms of fundamental values, i.e., what students need to know and be able to do in order to build careers or experience meaning in music for a lifetime. Persistent values such as intellectual and musical curiosity, lifelong learning, knowledge and skills for continuing growth, and mindsets of service to the place of music in society can subsume more specialized training in areas such as performance, technology, composition, entrepreneurship, or music scholarship. Undergraduate and graduate education cannot cover learning needs for a lifetime. Thus, music units will do well to adopt goals of overarching conceptual content and skills that may be achieved through a diverse and flexible range of relevant course topics and interdisciplinary offerings. This approach may offer students guided choice-making rather than prescriptive programs. While reducing numbers of courses, it may also foster innovative instruction focused on comprehensive musical understanding and musicianship rather than topic-centered or teacher-centered instruction. Such a holistic, values-based context for curriculum encourages more creative organization of content, urges longer term course planning to assist programmatic and financial efficiency, projects enrollment patterns to assure faculty loads and minimal course cancellations, and supports students' degree progress.

Another facet of breathless opportunity is to maximize institutional excellence by investing resources in areas of greatest capacity. Confronting the brutal realities of financial limits with a circumspect and grounded view of institutional legacy, faculty expertise, and prospects for future development can assist in defining distinctiveness, delivering the curriculum with integrity, and projecting realistic enrollments. This approach can help assure greater financial and educational viability across a broad spectrum of institutions, reducing duplication of programs and balancing resources with curriculums that help recruit and service appropriate populations of students.

Finally, the current economic crisis may serve as a catalyst for radical re-thinking of longstanding curriculum and delivery models. Is one-to-one studio instruction essential for every student at every level of performance, or could small-group instruction serve the needs of some students and perhaps even enliven the teaching of performance? Should theory, history, and culture continue to be taught in separation from performance? Should improvisation and composition and career development be essential elements of the program for all students? Do conducted ensembles need to function as emulations of professional ensembles beyond the academy, or can they be re-thought from a teaching and learning perspective as opportunities for comprehensive understanding and growth? Should flexible chamber music groups, jazz combos, contemporary ensembles, and cross-cultural music ensembles assume greater prominence in relation to conducted ensembles? What range of music learning opportunities should be available to students who are not music majors? In what cases may on-line instruction be appropriate? Though answers to these and other questions will vary from institution to institution, the opportunity for energizing interplay among curricular and instructional innovation, financial accountability, and success in musical careers and lives should not be missed.

Values and Strategies for a Positive Workplace Environment 

In the effort to deal with imposed budget cuts, universities have invoked policies including retrenchment of faculty lines, faculty and staff furloughs, and layoffs. Many have frozen new hires and salary increases, operations and management budgets have taken a heavy toll, and student financial support from endowment revenues has declined. Such a climate of uncertainty can lead to low workplace morale that can easily transfer to a culture of suspicion and malaise among students. If layoffs occur, anxieties may be raised about further reductions, concern may mount regarding how certain jobs will be accomplished, and staff, faculty, and students may believe that administration is behaving in inhumane ways toward loyal and effective individuals.

The music unit head must assure that he or she is apprised of college and university-level responses and policies in the midst of the budget crisis. These must be communicated, and sometimes interpreted, in a clear and timely manner to faculty, staff, and, as appropriate, students. He or she must also assist external constituents in understanding how the music unit may be impacted by institutional decisions. It is important that such information be shared in a context of data-based decision-making, and that questions, concerns, and suggestions be openly accepted. It is also important that, within an atmosphere of openness, the unit head exercise discretion as to information that is appropriately shared versus that which must remain confidential. This is particularly true in the case of unionized faculty or staff, where stipulations of bargaining agreements must be observed. In these cases, the unit head should consult with human resources staff to assure compliance.

Whether communicating externally with the media, alumni, donors, or interested parties, or internally with students, faculty, and staff, the unit head acts as a representative of the institution and must share information with an attitude of respect for those administrators who may be imposing strategies that challenge the unit's operations. Modeling and encouraging a culture of trust, transparency, respect, and open communication can help maintain morale despite the realities of lost faculty lines, staff reductions, or reduced levels of student financial support. In addition, collaborative goal-setting, involving faculty and staff in thinking about how financial cuts may be absorbed, and seeking every opportunity to balance bad news with good can be useful in helping employees maintain perspective. The economic crisis is global; every sector of society is affected; and we must be as creative as possible in minimizing the negative impact of financial concerns. If people are involved in thinking about solutions in light of realistic information, they are less likely to be demoralized when an undesirable, but nevertheless necessary, action must be taken.

Some Suggestions for Weathering the Fiscal Downturn

  • Remember that music and its value to humanity are the compelling reasons for our work and that the unit head is the steward of ensuring that priority

  • Stay as informed as possible and be proactive in advocating for the needs of the unit with upper administration while understanding and empathizing with the financial challenges

  • See it as your role to encourage, support, and remain positive with faculty, staff, and students who are experiencing understandable concern about the impact of cutbacks

  • Make use of the financial crisis to think creatively and innovatively about curriculum, resource development, and community relationships rather than allowing commitments to excellence to suffer

  • Communicate openly, but with appropriate discretion, about the impact, or potential impact, of cutbacks on the unit

  • Involve faculty, staff, and students in thinking about how to preserve the priority of excellence in music learning despite financial constraints

  • Share data with faculty, staff, and students, and help those who may be affected directly by furloughs, layoffs, or pay cuts to understand that sharing the impact assures a greater likelihood of maintaining jobs and programs, even at a reduced level

  • Balance discussions of the budget with important celebrations of success in teaching, performance, and scholarship

  • Find ways to manage your own concerns and stress, so that you may maintain a positive outlook with others and remain healthy and productive

  • Borrowing from the words of Parker Palmer in The Active Life (Jossey-Bass, 1990), be both contemplative and action oriented in assuring the best opportunities for musical growth and development possible in the context of your particular circumstances.


1 Collins, J. (2005). Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Boulder: Author.

2 Gardner, J. (1965). Speech on the occasion of becoming Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Washington, DC.

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