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I am just back from a week in California, ostensibly to attend AAUP’s annual Summer Institute. While in California, one can’t help but hearing about the shifts going on in higher ed there (especially with rooms full of California faculty), and begin to see trends with what we hear back home in the Commonwealth.

There, one of the calls from both the legislature and the administration is for “efficiency.” What this means, exactly, is unclear, but the movement of a term from industry shouldn’t surprise any of us since we know that every public university system, and some privates, now claim to be working on a “business model.” Efficiency is another piece of that model.

But what does it mean? In the past decade, PASSHE has reduced costs over $200 million based on their own claims about “efficiencies” having to do with contracts, utilities, and purchasing. Another “efficiency” is a 10%+ increase in class size (with another bump coming with this fall’s class). How much efficiency are we striving for?

The system is about to achieve more “efficiency” as we bring in some percentage more of students — last year it was 4% and that looks like a good guess for this year, based on word-of-mouth report — without more faculty. “More for less” is our mantra and we will achieve it again, with similar quality of instruction to those we serve.

The disheartening piece of this discussion, both in California and here, is that few making these pronouncements worry about either access, capacity, or opportunity. As systems talk about efficiency, they seem to inevitably worry about programs, which they think need to be efficient. What that means is unclear, though it seems to be based on a single datum: production of degrees.

We need to provide our students with the same educational opportunity and with the same quality as their predecessors had: whether it be their brother or sister, mother or father, professor, legislator, or university or union president. Our students deserve the chance to explore the liberal arts and become something more than the next manager at Walmart (who, interestingly, is funding one of the efficiency efforts in higher ed). It’s really our mission and we take it seriously.