Are we sacrificing effectiveness for efficiency in higher ed?

Higher education finds itself facing many challenges. In particular, questions about college costs, student debt, and public funding remain at the top of the higher education public policy agenda. I’ve been thinking a great deal about the issue of effectiveness versus efficiency. I’m increasingly concerned that in the push to lower costs, reduce public subsidies and improve internal operations that we are approaching a dangerous line: Are we sacrificing effectiveness for efficiency in higher education?

Photo credit: Ben Sutherland

Political leaders of both parties question the efficiency of higher education and decry the outright wasteful spending practices of colleges and universities.

Moreover, employment policies that are inherently inefficient from a financial perspective such as tenure, academic freedom, and reduced course loads for research are under attack.

For over a generation, critics have suggested that universities need to operate more like a business. Really, they are arguing that higher education should be more efficient.

On the surface, efficiency is an admirable goal and necessary in any organization. Simply put, efficiency is performing a task or function with the least amount of wasted time or effort.

Who could possibly be in favor of wasting time or effort?

The problem with efficiency is with who gets to decide if something wastes time or effort— policy makers, consultants, trustees, administrators, faculty, students?

Many efforts to improve efficiency can hurt the effectiveness of a college or university.

For example, let’s say that someone decides that it is inefficient to send a faculty member to multiple academic conferences. Surely, the logic goes, a faculty member can get the benefits of attending a professional meeting from attending once a year. Paying for multiple conferences is wasteful and inefficient both in paying for the travel expenses and having the faculty member away from campus.

But let’s say, by attending only once per year, a faculty member isn’t able to as fully develop professional networks and isn’t asked to be a co-PI on a $4 million National Science Foundation grant. Was it really efficient to save $1,000-$2,000 on a conference if it means missing the NSF grant? Was saving the travel money the most effective way to support the university’s research mission?

Often, what in higher education looks like an efficiency savings may not be or it may hinder our effectiveness.

On my own campus, we have had Bain consultants look into our operations for the past year or so. The goal is to improve the administrative operations (i.e. efficiency) in order to reallocate savings to the academic mission of the university. Again, on the surface, this seems an admirable goal. We are an academic not an administrative organization.

The line in reality is not so clear. Many initiatives in the Bain playbook no doubt will save the university money.

Yet, the Bain consultants know little about higher education in terms of mission, organization, governance, and student learning. That is to say, the things that make a university effective.

If you don’t know about what makes an organization effective, you simply can’t help determine how to balance efficiency and effectiveness.

An oft-used saying related to efficiency and effectiveness is that “efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things.”

In today’s climate of limited resources, many university leaders and especially boards of trustees are looking to pursue efficient operations in order to maximize their funding and resources. Discussions and decisions are too infrequently contextualized by what makes us effective.

This is dangerous for our students and institutions.

If we are sacrificing our effectiveness for efficiency in higher education, what’s the point?