Monday, January 19, 2009

Creative Solutions to Difficult Economic Problems

Just about everyone is strapped for cash these days. Costs are going up, while access to funds is generally going down. It's also no secret that educational institutions are especially hard-hit.

Two weeks ago, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw led a convocation detailing Fuller's responses to the crisis. Although I will admit that some of the "solutions" hit harder than I expected them to, that's more a measure of how much bigger the problem is than I had previously understood it to be than it is about Fuller doing anything wrong. In fact, I'm happy to go on record as saying that Mouw handled this difficult convocation event as well as could possibly be expected, and I feel that the community as a whole has demonstrated remarkable understanding in their responses. A quick run-down can be found here, but if you care to see a video of the President's portion of the event, you can do so below (it lasts less than 15 minutes).

However, I'm really not interested in talking too much about Fuller, but rather about the other institution of higher education which I'm proud to consider my alma mater: Montreat College. Montreat College constituents received an e-mail last week from the current President of the college, Dan Struble. The Montreat situation, as detailed in the letter, seems in many ways similar to Fuller's, and perhaps even worse (I don't believe that Fuller is so dependent on endowment income). But one of the actions Montreat will be taking is not only one that I haven't specifically heard that Fuller is taking, but may prove to be a "win-win" for most parties concerned. Since the text of the letter is publicly accessible via the Montreat College web page, I am assuming that it is safe to quote a portion of it here:
We are also substantially increasing the number of student jobs available on our Montreat campus beginning this spring. We hope that doing so will have many positive effects. First, this should make it possible for students to help defray the costs of their education in two ways: by using earnings to pay for tuition, and by allowing us to reduce our costs. Second, research on student success indicates that students who work on campus are more likely to do well in school and to persist to graduation. Third, working on campus should allow more students to live without cars (further reducing their expenses, improving the environment, and reducing energy dependence). Fourth, student work experience increases employability upon graduation. And last but not least, we believe that increasing the number of students working on campus will enhance our community in ways that make Montreat College better, more enjoyable, and that models for student show real communities work when all involved pitch in to meet each others' needs.
Now, I should be clear at the outset that I am not suggesting that Fuller also seek to have more of their jobs filled by students. We already have a more-than-significant number of our positions filled by current students, and while I think that this is a strength of our community, I actually think that Fuller would do well to have more positions filled by people who aren't expecting to leave the community after graduation. Fuller's situation is different than Montreat's for several reasons, not the least of which is that Fuller's students are here being trained for predominately church-related employment, and the types of jobs being done here on campus are not as analogous to that kind of future employment as the types of jobs available at Montreat are likely to be for Montreat's considerably broader constituency.

That said, I can proudly say that I benefited from having been employed by the college in various ways while I was a student there. I worked in the Library, as a Teaching Assistant, and as a Resident Assistant in one of the dorms (and those were just the paid positions!). I definitely do feel that these positions were helpful to me when I applied for and got the job that I have now, just as I still hope that, when financial times are better, my current job will prove helpful in getting whatever my next job ends up being. Although I did have a car while I lived at Montreat, having jobs on campus definitely meant that I didn't have to use it all that much (and I did live on campus, as well), something I miss now that I live in vehicle-dependent Southern California and have to commute to work.

Obviously, even this creative solution will be hard for many people (especially if anyone is losing their current job at the college, but although I see "reducing staff" on the list of actions to be taken, I know from experience at Fuller that this is often accomplished through attrition rather than through actual lay-offs), but I hope that it becomes an opportunity for those who are able to take advantage of it.

UPDATE: 2/4/09 - A friend recently commented on the possibility that Montreat might be actively laying off staff and replacing them with student workers. This may be based on information that I was not given, or it may simply be a different (but possible) interpretation of the same information I have already commented on. Although I am indeed under the impression that Montreat College is seeking to reduce staff positions held by non-students, I assumed that they would be doing so through attrition, not through laying off existing workers. I made this assumption because I know that this has been Fuller's general policy in similar times. If it is indeed true that Montreat is actively laying off staff, and replacing those people with students, my attitude toward this action is significantly less positive.

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