by J J Cohen
Without going too far into intramural affairs, I want to post about an exchange that happened yesterday at a task force meeting. It's not often enough that I am called upon to articulate my own idealism in an ordinary meeting. Doing so helped cure me of the blues I had earlier in the day.
I've been appointed to a committee whose charge has been difficult to discern: on the one hand our official label speaks of innovation, but on the other our actual mission seems to center upon efficiency and potential cost cutting. My university is attempting to raise more money via fundraising combined with budget savings. The latter effort is a little odd because we are not in fact suffering the kinds of fiscal meltdowns that have gripped other institutions of higher education. The idea is, I suppose, that all universities can find ways to be more efficient, all budgets have fat that can be trimmed, and that it is better to undertake such projects when no crisis propels the effort.
Our committee's particular rubric is "learning," also referred to as "the academic enterprise." At our first brainstorming session, we immediately agreed that we would preface what we undertake with this statement: "The group is unanimous in its opinion that the academic enterprise at GW has been sorely underfunded." Finding ways to reduce costs is therefore a counterintuitive endeavor -- though not a wholly impossible one.
We were surprised, though, when we were informed that our thoughts should be guided by a strategic plan published six years ago, and originating several years before that. The plan is deeply associated with the vision and aspirations of our last university president (who reigned for 19 years) and his VP of Academic Affairs (who retires in May). Given that innovation is the in-folding of the new, I began to fear that the only thing innovative about our project is that budget reduction had been christened with a novel name.
To this objection I was told that our committee would find the economic means by which innovation could be enacted. To my query of who gets to do the innovating, the quick answer was the VP who is about to retire along with the provost who will replace him (that search is ongoing and will not be filled for some time).
So I pointed out that it might not be a best practice to hand $60 million in innovation funds to a person who has not yet arrived and a person who represents the past of the institution and has a foot at the door. I was told two things: (1) faculty cynicism and skepticism are major impediments to innovation; (2) we need to think in terms of what is best for the university.
To the second comment I replied simply that I, my faculty, and my students are the university. I find that when a person says "Get out of your silo and think about the university" what they actually mean is "Entrust this decision to those who have your best interests in mind." To the first comment I said, quite sincerely, that if I were cynical and skeptical I never would have accepted appointment to the committee. Cynicism and skepticism are modes of non-participation. They are lazy. I am in fact an optimist, even a utopianist: I want to be at a university where we move forward through consensus, shared vision, and community. Innovation, yes: that is why I serve on the committee when I have a thousand other demands on my time. I'm willing to undertake the labor ... but not so that some few who work for the university but who are not its entirety can make decisions that profoundly alter the lives of the thousands who actually are that collective.
Such objections did not fall on deaf ears. The mission of the task force is now going to be clarified in light of our discussion.
So what about you: are you a cynic, a skeptic, an idealist, a utopianist? Have you ever been in an institutional situation when you had to deliver your credo?
PS I realize that posting this interchange might seem self-congratulatory. I don't mean it that way. For me it's a reminder of what I value, of what I believe. Be a part of any institution long enough and it is easy to lose your credo, to focus on the small and the immediate over the frustratingly vast but enduring. The more demands I find myself answerable to, the more necessary I find it to remind myself not to follow paths of inertia and least effort.