KU News Release

May 29, 2012
Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860

Education professors study how college leaders manage 'financial tsunami'

Rick Ginsberg

Karen Multon

More Information

LAWRENCE — While the economy has affected nearly everyone, including higher education leaders, almost none of the people charged with leading their schools and departments have had training in how to deal with financially imposed crises. Two University of Kansas researchers have authored a study of how deans and department chairs lead during “financial tsunamis” and the effects budget cuts have on leaders’ health, department morale and accomplishing the goals of higher education.

Rick Ginsberg, dean of the School of Education, and Karen Multon, chair and professor of psychology and research in education, surveyed 56 deans and 45 department chairs at institutions that have experienced budget cuts in recent years. While they found that the majority of leaders were satisfied with their jobs and performances, the bad news was that several leaders reported negative impacts on their health such as higher blood pressure, loss of sleep and weight gain as a result of decisions they had to make. With a smaller budget, many have been forced to lay off people they’ve worked with for years and had no choice but to make classes ever larger and be able to approve fewer research- and teaching-related expenses for their faculty.

“The impact was a little more severe on deans than department chairs,” Ginsberg said. “It used to be expected that deans have a fiduciary responsibility, but we’re seeing it a lot with chairs now. Many reported ‘we have less, so we’re going to do less.’ What it often ends up as, is students aren’t being served as well as they should be.”

Despite declining resources, many leaders reported they were expected to do “more with less.” Larger class sizes, fewer faculty and associated problems have come to be viewed as “the new normal” in many instances after several consecutive years of declining budgets. These problems, along with forced planning, or the reality that leaders have to strategically come up with a plan to continue course delivery and other services despite declining budgets, were “disturbing findings,” the authors said. Those pressures do not appear to be going away in the near future, either.

“States tend to lag behind federal trends in recovery. This is going to go on for a while,” Ginsberg said. “Who’s going to want to apply for these jobs? There’s no money, you have to make hard decisions that affect people’s lives. We could lose out on some good leaders.”

Many leaders dealt with what the authors called “tornadoes of misunderstanding.” Some faculty either did not understand the financial difficulties or chose to ignore them. Other adopted an attitude of “fix it and make it go away,” only adding to the difficulty of leadership.

The news is not all bad, however. Several of the respondents showed they were able to weather the financial storm, continue providing services and keep the stress from having a severe negative impact.

“Deans and department chairs who were transparent tended to get more understanding from their colleagues,” Multon said.

Communication within the workplace was important, but the authors also found successful people created support networks, whether it be fellow administrators, colleagues outside of the university or a trusted spouse they could talk to about the pressures they faced at work. Those who tended to make time for physical activity, meditation, prayer or other positive methods of coping also fared better.

While very few of the respondents received any sort of training in leadership during crises, those who have found ways to positively handle it were, not surprisingly, more successful in coping with financial strain. Ginsberg and Multon suggest that deans and department chairs all receive training in how to handle crises before they are placed in leadership positions.

“Nobody prepares you for this,” Ginsberg said. “You can’t be prepared for specific incidents, but you can prepare for how you deal with it.”

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