Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Can BigU become GreatBigU?

Half the world's universities seem to be aiming for a spot as a "top" institution. Many of them apparently are using the same consultants or perhaps they just copy empty sloganeering from other websites. Take the phrase "ambitious aspirations" which seems, er, redundant. Google those words and up pops (in no particular order) Yale, Iowa State, Emory, University of Iowa, University of Cincinnati, Istanbul Tech, University of Addis Ababa, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, etc., etc. ad nauseum. Not to be outdone in the pursuit of buzzwords, even governments have gotten into the act - see the official website of the government of Antigua and Barbada where mention is made of ambitious aspiration.

BigU, natch, has gotten into the act. OurLeader has touted BigU's ambitious aspirations in an embarrassingly titled document: "Serving Minnesota Through World-Class Greatness."

"Starting in 2004, the University began the first comprehensive strategic planning process it had undergone in almost 15 years. Under the leadership of Provost Sullivan, the University community articulated an ambitious aspiration for the University—to be one of the top three public research universities in the world [sic] within a decade."

So there you go. As Captain Kirk would say: "Make it so, Mr. Spock."

Watch out Berkeley, Michigan, and any other public university you think is a good one - and I happen to think there are many. The otherworldliness of the statement is highlighted by the "in the world" part. The last I heard, Cambridge and Oxford were public universities as are a lot of other institutions outside the US. World-wide rankings of universities are few and probably inaccurate but the sad news is, at least in the Times Higher Education rankings, BigU has ranked somewhere between 150 and 200 "in the world."

OurLeader, aided and abetted by his sidekick, ET, has been manipulating a process known as "strategic planning" that is mentioned above. About ten years ago, we were reengineered at BigU and the process was a disaster. Tenure is inconvenient for administrators because it makes it hard to get rid of troublemakers. So an attempt was made to get rid of tenure. Let's just say that many of the people who were involved in reengineering and the attempt to eliminate tenure are still on the job and in some cases very high up the greasy pole.

Question from the back: "So what is it going to take to significantly improve BigU?"

Answer: Leadership and resources.

Mr. Bonzo maintains based on his 37 years of association with BigU that we have only had one president that was of the caliber necessary to lead a great university. And I am not just completely negative on administrators. When Mr. Bonzo broke into the academic game as an assistant prof at the non-Lutheran College in Northfield, he was mightily impressed by the President, the late Howard Swearer. When a president's position opened yet again at BigU, Mr. Bonzo suggested to colleagues at BigU that they really ought to consider Howard Swearer for president. The response was condescending. However could the president of a little college handle the responsibilities of BigU? [Hint: Howard Swearer was smart.] Howard's next job, by the way, was president of Brown University where I gather he did quite a good job.

I won't personally attack OurLeader's academic credentials but merely note that he has served, very competently, as an administrator at BigU for most of his academic career. Since he was provost at the time the last president flew the coop, he was selected to be acting president. When a search for a permanent president was held, he at first declared that he was not a candidate. Let's just say that he, er, changed his mind. He was then chosen in a search of "the whole world" and wonder of wonders was selected as the best of all possible candidates. (Mr. Bonzo knows that this must be hard to believe, but as a great philosopher once said: "You could look it up!")

Question from the back of the classroom: "Now it is easy to complain about things, Mr. Bonzo, what, exactly, do you propose that we do?"

1. Get Real (seriously)

We are not stupid. We being the faculty, students, and staff at BigU as well as the taxpayers of ColdState. When an administrator is nailed about the unreality of the over-the-top claims to greatness, they will usually flinch and say something like:

"But those are just aspirational goals."

We all know this! But the justification for doing certain things, if you actually were in the position to become "great" is simply not there if that goal is not attainable.

And speaking of getting real, let's hear no more of this nonsense about bringing in expensive senior faculty from outside who will somehow save us. We can't even keep the good people we've got, apparently! Hemorrhaging at the medical school is extensive. Ed Prescott left what was once a great economics department at BigU to go to Arizona State [sic] the year before he got the Nobel Prize in economics. We just lost two world class chemistry professors to Ohio State [sic] and in recent years to Wisconsin (1) and Texas (3).

As a proud graduate of BigU's chemistry department I am saddened that the institution has seen fit to let the department be robbed.

Incidentally, the administration was able to dig up approximately two million dollars for a publicity campaign in addition to about five million dollars for buyouts of coaches as mentioned elsewhere in the blog. Oh and we're also putting up a new football stadium on campus for, at last word, 250 million dollars, having abandoned the one built downtown to replace the old football stadium on campus that we tore down. I know, you think I'm putting you on, but you could look it up... Tom Moe, a former BigU athletic director, said that tearing down the old stadium - Veterans Memorial Stadium - was the worst mistake that had ever been made at BigU. For once, I have to agree with a BigU athletic director, but rubbing out General College is a close second.

To repeat: It is time to get real around here.

2. Have Some Real Faculty Input

A little charade is going on. All of the members of the committees on the panels that are supposed to write papers on reengineering, er, transforming the University were given detailed specifications in the form of a "list of deliverables" for what they were to do.

Attendance at meetings for faculty input was pitiful, because most faculty have lost faith in the university administration. Mr. Bonzo accosted one of the discussion leaders after one of these farcical events and was told that his objections seemed valid and that perhaps when there was a new administration they could be addressed.

A discussion of the General College situation at this point would just be pouring gasoline on a fire. Suffice it to say that the former Dean of General College, the eminent black scholar, Dr. David V. Taylor, was never even invited to the table to discuss the rub-out of General College. Dr. Taylor is now provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs at Morehouse. To have Dr. Taylor leave BigU is pitiful.

3. Let's get back to the business of doing what we do very well and not worry about being "the best."

Now first you have to understand the climate at BigU. It is rather like the climate for some time in DC before Bush recently got gored. To point out the idiocy is somehow to be disloyal, or against excellence, or not be in favor of motherhood and apple pie. To which I say - baloney.

I think that it is possible for a student to get a better education at BigU than at Carleton, at NU, at St. Olaf, or at St. Catherine, to mention a few institutions in which I have either been on the giving or receiving end of teaching. And I am not trying to run these places down because in many respects they are better than BigU. What BigU excels at is the breadth and depth of courses that are available to students.

Everything, just about, is here. And BigU is not just for science wienies like Mr. Bonzo. There are fantastic teachers in just about any subject you might find interesting - but you have to be savvy and entrepreneurial in locating them. Be prepared to drop courses if they are taught by turkeys unless you absolutely can't avoid it. Mr. Bonzo strongly believes that public education is the great equalizer and that BigU serves the educational needs of ColdState very well.

He has had undergrads who worked in his lab be accepted to do graduate work at Berkeley, UCSD, UCSF, Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge... In short, if you go to BigU and do well, you can write your own ticket. Mr Bonzo has had many undergrads in his lab who are the equal of students anywhere. This is a heckuva deal for the citizens of ColdState. (Of course it helps that all of the students are above average in ColdState.)

4. And let's drop this ridiculous argument that doing anything is better than doing nothing.

I hear this all the time. Variations are: Well we have to do something because everyone else is doing things and if we don't do something we will fall behind. All sorts of craziness is being done of the dubious make-it-so, Spock type. We are in top-down rather than the bottom-up mode that will be required if real and lasting improvements are to be made.

So let me try to give an example. Suppose you walked over to the Washington Avenue Mississippi River Bridge. Would it be better to just stand there and do nothing, or would it be better to jump over the railing (as John Berryman did, sadly) ?

Doing something stupid, or in Berryman's case insane, is not preferable to doing nothing. It is worse.

bg (aka Mr. Bonzo)

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