ACE conference addresses college sustainability in troubled times

This week, a panel of higher-education stakeholders gathered to discuss their greatest sustainability challenges during the economic downturn.

During a seminar this week at the American Council on Education’s annual conference, panelists addressed how colleges and universities continue to be plagued by the repercussions of the “Great Recession” of 2008.

A panel of higher-education stakeholders discussed their greatest challenges in dealing with the economic downturn. Chief among these, college presidents said, was achieving a delicate balance between strengthening their financial stability and maintaining good value.

San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman, who was appointed to the post in 2011, touted the value of resiliency and adaptation in troubled times. He spoke about having to contend with strict budget limitations, and having to find innovative ways to generate revenue in order to continue important research initiatives.

Hirshman said knew he couldn’t solely slash the university’s spending, which would only “devastate programs,” but instead focused largely on comprehensive fundraising campaigns. He asked his staff to brainstorm inventive ways to maximize revenue relative to cost.

“Pressure makes diamonds,” he said. San Diego State’s faculty rose to the challenge, and most initiatives they pursued were successful. Under Hirshman’s leadership, San Diego State has raised more than $391 million, very close to its overall goal of $500 million.

Though he and his faculty saw positive results, Hirshman described the period of change as “very difficult,” and filled with “tense conversations.”

“I’m not endorsing our revenue-based approach for every university,” he said. Synergies and mergers were two other options that he suggested universities consider.

Hirshman said he’s encouraged by California voters’ recent passing of Proposition 30, a decision to raise their own taxes to fund higher education. He said colleges now have the opportunity to promote meaningful, lasting change if they’re willing to rise to the occasion.

(Next page: How the SUNY system lowered costs during the economic downturn)