The United States is currently in its 113 th month of consecutive economic expansion. The all-time record is 120. A trade-war-obsessed lunatic is in control of the White House, and earlier this year Congress approved maybe the most radical set of deficit-driven tax cuts ever proposed. The likelihood that a recession hits the United States at some point in the next 24 months is thus exceedingly high.
And when Americans sneeze, odds are strong Canada will catch a cold. Which leads me to my question: what are Canadian universities, colleges and governments doing to prepare for the next recession?
The first stage of recessions are usually pretty good for post-secondary education. Governments put on their “we are all Keynesians now” hats and start spending on infrastructure, which means a whack of nice new buildings on campuses. But, inevitably, as time goes on, someone has to pay for the Keynesianism. Budgets have to go back into balance and that means a reduction in transfer payments. The question is: what then?
In principle, this is an answerable question. It should be possible for institutions to use their internal consultation processes to game out what kinds of things need to be prioritized and/or protected during a downturn – or if not to decide where cuts will happen (or new revenue is to be generated), at least agree on the process by which such decisions will be made. Indeed – bear with me now, I know this is wacky – we could even imagine institutions having these discussions in a calm and collegial atmosphere long before they actually happen .
Imagine for a second if institutions could discuss these matters without the pressure of imminent budget deadlines. Are there particular areas of campus services which appear to be performing less well/are genuinely not as valued in the community as others? In the event of a freeze or a cut, how much money would a hiring freeze save? Is it worth it? What additional efficiencies could the institution take on? Are there minimum class size rules that could be instituted/altered? Might savings be found by delaying certain non-essential projects? Is there a roster of such projects? These are trust-building discussions that institutions could be having today with faculty, staff and students.
To be clear, the point of such discussions is not to have some kind of detailed plan which can be rolled out with a snap of the fingers once budget cuts come. That would be impossible. But to quote President Eisenhower (or at least quote something often attributed to him even if he didn’t actually say it), “in preparing for battle, plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. Knowing in advance where consensus lies on the value of various institutional expenditures and activities can allow institutional leadership to take action during a crisis that is both quick and collegial.
Now I realise that Canadian universities (less so colleges) are among the most passive-aggressive environments on earth and people rarely bring up sensitive subjects like this if there is any way they can possibly avoid it. But maybe, because the likelihood of this event is so high and the potential consequences so significant, we can set aside our natural fear of confrontation and start having these conversations, preferably informally and in low-stakes discussions, before the event actually happens.
Then maybe, just maybe, we could get through one of these things without all the useless internal bickering and nastiness that usually accompanies a recession on campus. It’s certainly worth giving a try, at least.