Two points of context will help illustrate why one meeting last week was both painful and gratifying.
Different states handle Perkins grants in different ways. Here, the state allocates a set amount to each community college. The colleges have to submit budgets to the state for approval, showing how they intend to use the money. The money comes with strings. It can only be used for career and technical programs, for instance, and the college has to follow the federal rule of “supplement, not supplant.” In other words, it can’t be used to pay for things that the college normally pays for out of its own funding.
With the deadline for next year’s budget looming, we had put out multiple calls to departments and programs to make the funding requests they wanted. We wound up with $1.2 million worth of requests for approximately $600,000 in funding.
A former colleague used to say that any budget can be balanced, as long as you don’t care about outcomes. But I do care about outcomes. Cutting the list by about half is one thing; cutting the list by about half while minimizing harm is something else.
When I arrived at Brookdale, the group of deans I inherited had learned through experience that internal competition was rewarded. I don’t believe in that. To my mind, the taxpayers of Monmouth County don’t care at all which dean is in favor at any given time. They want to know that the college is working well. So I’ve consistently tried to shift the culture from one of combat to one of collaboration. We have a common goal, and energy spent on internal politics is energy not spent on the common goal. The culture shift has been glacial: gradual, but in ways that alter the landscape.
Context having been established, I hope folks can understand just how striking this was:
The deans, the Perkins coordinator and I met for hours to whittle down the requests to match our allocation. Here’s the good part: everybody only volunteered cuts from their own areas. It was not conflictual. Proverbial horses were not traded. (Neither were real ones, for that matter.) We went around and around and around, each area offering up what it could until we got the total down to where it needed to be. Each dean was able to prioritize within their respective areas, and when they have to break bad news to department chairs, they can say truthfully that every area gave up something. We even prioritized a few items to be first on the list if other things come in cheaper than expected and some funds become available that way midyear.
The conversation was draining, but the tension was us against the number. It wasn’t us against each other. Nobody enjoyed it, but when it was over, we all knew that every single decision had been made for the right reasons.
Budget-cutting sessions are never fun. But I took a kind of pride in how this one went. A culture of collaboration and mutual respect has become strong enough to survive cutting half of a budget. As grim as the circumstance was, that was a real win.
Obviously, I’d much rather have enough funding that meetings like these become unnecessary. But I’m proud of my team for showing that it’s possible to be mature and collaborative even when the task at hand isn’t pretty. On a cultural level, that’s a clean win.