Excellence can’t be efficient

Sarah Zuckerman is Associate Professor of Educational Administration

At the December 2023 meeting of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents,1 I remarked during the comment period that in education excellence and efficiency are diametrically opposed values. My statement was in response to the former president of the NU system, Ted Carter, who insisted that making multimillion-dollar cuts, on top of years of multimillion-dollar cuts, would help us reach excellence. My assertion that excellence and efficiency are antagonistic values comes from my background in K-12 administration,2 but I think it provides a helpful lens for this moment at the University of Nebraska and other state universities across the country. Likewise, two other values can help us understand what is happening in higher education: equity and choice.

A diagram of a four-color scheme

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Excellence Requires Investment

Excellence is a value that has long fueled educational policy in the United States. Starting in the 1950s, there was a concerted effort to raise the bar for education in the name of global competition. Excellence is concerned with the effectiveness of practices and producing high-quality results. Which results and how to measure them is often up for debate, as is the question of who is given the opportunity to excel.

For those in the fray of NU or for close watchers, it is increasingly clear that excellence has been defined by an external organization, the Association of American of Universities (the AAU), which describes itself as “composed of America’s leading universities.” Membership is by invitation, and they state they value maintaining a small organization. Their website highlights that this small group of research universities receives the majority of federal research grants. In addition to federal research dollars, faculty awards, research citations, and the number of published books contribute to the first phase of membership vetting. The second phase includes additional research funding, the number of doctoral degrees awarded, and the number of post-doctoral fellowships, as well as the number of Pell Grant recipients, and the graduation rates of both Pell eligible and ineligible students, as well as the differences in graduation rates. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln remains the only university to have been voted out of this highfalutin group (LINK). Both Ted Carter and new UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett have repeatedly stated their desire to rejoin AAU. However, the metrics used by AAU are not the only way to measure the excellence or contribution of a university. 

Efficiency Leads to Divestment

Efficiency, on the other hand, tends to be defined more consistently as whether an organization is making the most of its resources, particularly in terms of money and time. While public funding to state universities has declined significantly since the Great Recession, taxpayers often want to know that they are getting their money’s worth and that there is a high rate of return. In higher education, this is complicated by the fact that, unlike K-12 education, a college education is viewed almost exclusively as a private good, benefiting only those with degrees, rather than a public good that benefits all. The treatment of students as customers furthers this interpretation of higher education as an individual good, purchased by an individual. Yet, college education benefits all of us through increased wages and a bigger tax base, as well as supporting democratic participation and creating a healthier population. If a large part of the public mistakenly sees college education as merely an individual good, it’s hard to see how any public investment would appear to offer an adequate return.

We also often hear the word efficiency when public budgets are cut. This discourse draws on the perception in certain corners that any public government function is rife with abuse and corruption, and that the answer is to starve government agencies of the resources they need to function (thus proving that government doesn’t work). Famously, the IRS has been starved of resources necessary to do the basic functions of processing income taxes, let alone the work of enforcement. As a result, the IRS is unable to function optimally, leaving tax dollars on the table that could be funding the federal government. Efficiency is the buzzword of austerity measures, which have been starving public services for decades. 

Similarly, cuts at UNL during each of my eight years at the university have made it harder and harder to function optimally. These cuts have led to the reorganization of some functions of the university that have been sold to us as ways to increase efficiency. This includes the centralization of ITS and other functions at the campus and even system level, and the implementation of the self-serve travel reimbursement software Concur. While there is not yet research on these reductions to the support functions within universities, anecdotally, at UNL and other institutions, these cuts have led to anything but efficiency for faculty. The time faculty members spend negotiating unfriendly systems is time they are not attending to the core functions of the university: teaching, research, and service to their professional organizations and communities. This is just one example of how a focus on efficiency may lead to a reduction in excellence. 

This press towards efficiency is making it difficult to do what we already do with anything resembling excellence. Yet, we are being pushed constantly to innovate, to find new revenue streams, and to create new courses and programs to bring in tuition dollars. While I don’t disagree that higher education needs to be a more adaptive sector, research suggests that innovation of products and how organizations do business requires slack resources in the system.3 That is, innovation doesn’t happen when people are operating in a time of crisis, with a lack of resources, but rather an abundance of resources is necessary for organizational innovation. 

Choice and Equity Need More Attention

Two other values–choice and equity–can also help us understand this moment in higher education. Choice can be expressed in three ways: democratic, professional, and individual choice. Democratic choice shows up through shared decision-making by stakeholders, including students, and instructors, as well as the community at large. Professional choice emphasizes the autonomy of instructors to collectively decide what and how to teach based on their professional knowledge. 

Individual choice is often understood in free market approaches to education. Universities compete in the post-secondary marketplace, seeking to attract an ever-increasing number of students despite a decline in traditional, college-aged students. Like the University of West Virginia, where the President E. Gordon Gee catastrophically missed the memo on the state’s declining birth rates,  UNL’s leaders appeared to have mistakenly banked on increasing enrollment. At UNL, our enrollment was fairly flat between 2014 and 2020. While it has declined since the pandemic, this situation will likely be worse in a few years once we hit the small Great Recession cohort born in 2008. With Ted Carter insisting on keeping tuition flat during a period of runaway inflation, the only way to balance the budget is by enticing a greater proportion of a shrinking pool of students to choose UNL. With fewer programs and supports, it is unclear why more students would choose UNL.

The last value expressed in educational policy is equity. This value is perhaps the least defined of the four, with questions about whether equity is created through equitable inputs or whether we should measure equity only through outcomes, recognizing some students may need more support to achieve at the same level. The current cuts at UNL include numerous supports aimed at students who need more help to achieve success. While these cuts might increase efficiency, they certainly threaten equity and limit which students can experience success. Most shockingly, nearly half of the budget of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been chopped, the largest percentage of any of the proposed cuts. 

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion was created to meet very real needs at UNL and across the state at large. Ted Carter himself pointed out Nebraska’s equity issues: “The difference in college attainment between whites and minorities in Nebraska is 25 percent – third-worst in the country.” Numerous faculty, along with the APC (the committee charged with formulating and recommending academic and planning goals and initiatives for UNL in the areas of teaching, research, and service), have spoken out about these cuts. New Chancellor Rodney Bennett’s email to the faculty following the winter shutdown stated that he had heard the concerns of faculty about these cuts and I’m paraphrasing now, he frankly did not care.  Clearly, our efforts to increase equitable access to higher education are being sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.4 

More to the point, Ted Carter left us to pick up the pieces while he pursues excellence somewhere else. While that doesn’t help so much with the budget cuts, it does provide us with opportunities to seek a new path, one that should be focused on equity and democratic choice, with faculty, students, and community members having input on what they want to see from their state university, rather than one in which we let the AAU or any other external entity dictate our priorities and how we should invest our resources. 

  1. Or follow Chris Dunker on Twitter, I mean, X ↩︎
  2. Sergiovanni, T. et al. (2008). Educational Governance and Administration. 6th ed. Pearson. ↩︎
  3. Damanpour, Fariborz. 1991. “Organizational Innovation: A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Determinants and Moderators” The Academy of Management Journal . Vol 34 (3): 555-590. ↩︎
  4. And likely state politics, but that’s for another blog. ↩︎