no margins, no mission

American inventor Thomas Edison is famous for saying that “vision without execution is hallucination.” Commentator Thomas Friedman revised this: “vision without resources is an hallucination.” Lots of Thomases have been concerned, apparently, with what happens when vision floats off, detached from material reality.

Without a profit-making enterprise, a business that collects more money than it spends, there is no educational mission.

This quote from the Consultant Consortium for Higher Education Accreditation & Compliance (CCHEAC) brings into stark reality how the philosophies of the Thomases are playing out in higher education these days. While we might all understand and even champion the idea that we need to plan strategically and concretely in order to enact our aspirational visions, and that we need to adequately fund those plans in order to succeed, we generally think of mission as something that precedes execution. The CCHEAC quote comes from an article entitled “No Margins, No Mission,” a familiar refrain across higher education at this point. What happens when revenue doesn’t just enable mission, but drives it?


In the United States, we are starting to see monthly closures of small private universities whose financial bottom lines sink too far into the red for recovery. We are seeing consolidation in public systems, as regional campuses get absorbed by flagships in the hopes of preventing financial devastation. And with the exception of our most elite colleges with the most bloated of endowments, we all struggle with budget constriction and a general climate of austerity. So what happens to our missions when our financial margins shrink and we react out of anxiety to protect our institutional futures?

And what do words and phrases like “efficiency,” “consolidation,” “innovation,” “trim,” “critical mass,” and “market demand” mean for learners and programs on the margins? Institutions have shrinking financial margins; they have little margin for error. When we consider who and what is marginalized in our institutions, we should worry that one kind of margin is going to do violence on another. This is a tale of two margins.

I think we need to insist that we attach the idea of cost to both of these kinds of margins.

What is the cost of an academic program? What will it mean to the financial margins of the institution if it is cut?

What are the costs of not having an academic program? How will it affect the trajectory of the world’s knowledge and, relatedly, how humanity develops?

Ethnic Studies is a good example of a program that has costs to run that could possibly reduce an institution’s financial margins (deep skepticism should ensue about even implying this could happen, by the way), but there are also costs to cutting Ethnic Studies: increased hegemony in academic research and in academic disciplines; decreased representation in academic content and communities for people (including students) of color; shutting down of interdisciplinary connections and collaborations with academic fields that do not value or leverage diversity; and on and on. We don’t know all the benefits to learning that we lose when we cut programs that we call “marginal,” because we’ve not taken the time to understand the value of these programs outside of financial metrics.

Some might argue that we need to recast the value of Ethnic Studies in financial terms. And as I implied above, I think we can. I’ve spent the last five years working in a program that serves customized majors: every student makes up their own program. In an era of consolidation, our program looks on the surface like the least efficient idea on the planet. We mostly support the program with personal, one-on-one advising. It’s nobody’s model of efficiency. And yet, for a host of reasons, I can explain why we are a cash cow for our institution. And our institution has noticed that, resourcing us with new lines and support even when the institutional budget is beyond tight. But I am not going to explain the revenue generation now. Because those arguments are easy and common. I personally make them every day. Sometimes I think that every time I make them, I set things back– even when I might win a new resource for our program.

The problem is that all of our missions grow from conversations about financial margins, and not from conversations about the value– academic, human, humane– of the margins of our communities and the margins that gesture toward our intellectual potential. When we recast our arguments for serving vulnerable populations or saving/expanding/creating academic programs in terms of the financial bottom line, we think about cost and value only in economic terms, which is only one metric that matters. Of course, it matters a lot. Institutional solvency matters because we serve learners and learning, and institutions where budgets are tightest serve learners who are least likely to enroll in college at all if our institutions close. But we’ve muddied up our mission by letting revenue drive our assessments of costs and value, and we’ve not spent nearly enough time thinking about the ethics– and violence– of building financial margins at the expense of clearing marginalized (not marginal) programs and people from our learning communities.


When was a time the financial margins at your institution dictated mission? And/or when was a time your mission was undercut by budget cuts? How does this matter to you and/or to your students?