Monday, June 15, 2009

Excellence Within Our Means

[I thank a kind friend for making valuable suggestions about a draft of this piece.]

Remarks to be delivered to the Board of Regents, University of Minnesota, on June 17, 2009

Thirty five years ago, as a new Minnesota PhD, I went down to Carleton to start my teaching career. The chemistry laboratory facilities were, at that time, much worse than those in the state's high schools. And yet Carleton, today, is widely acknowledged as one of the best institutions of its kind.

There is a lesson here that I have never forgotten: People, not buildings, are what makes an institution excellent.

An imperfect acknowledgment of this idea is our administration's use of the phrase “human capital.”

Along with reminding me of my old lesson about the primacy of people, this phrase reminds us all of the old caution to pay attention to what people do, much more than to what they say.

In the matter of the Bell Museum, the new biomedical research buildings, MoreU Park, and modification of the Regents scholarship program, the administration asks sacrifices of us. It also asks people to anticipate the possible loss of 1200 jobs. But while it asks others to make sacrifices, the administration doesn't make its own. A salary freeze at the level of $750 K is not the same sort of sacrifice as that made by a person earning less than ten percent of this amount and ultimately losing his or her job.

We all wish the best for our university. But many of us disagree with the current priorities of the administration and have been saying so for quite some time. This administration has ignored those who do not subscribe to the goal of being one of the top three public research universities in the world.

People who think that we should be one of the best universities in the Big Ten have been called “doubters” by our president. This is disturbing.

The following words are addressed directly and respectfully to the Regents.

Your desire to support President Bruininks is admirable. But some things that I have witnessed at Board meetings over the past few years lead me to believe that more skepticism about the administration's priorities is in order. Signs of this skepticism have begun to emerge.

Last year some of the Regents dared suggest that perhaps there should be no alcohol in the stadium. I think they were right, but they were browbeaten by the stadium's strongest proponent.

One of the Regents has recently argued that cuts to employee tuition reimbursement are inappropriate.

Regent Larson pointed out last December that requesting a budgetary increase that included a new Bell Museum was a mistake in the current economic situation.

I hope the Regents will be sensitive to the charges of elitism or arrogance that can readily be made for inappropriate financial requests to the state legislature.

We share a common goal – an excellent university. But our priorities should recognize the primary importance of people as fundamental to our land grant mission. Our fellow citizens must be convinced that this is so. Only then will we be able make our shared goal of excellence a reality.

Thank you for the opportunity to make this statement.

1 comment:

Slugger said...

A valiant statement, Bonzo. Here's my spin on what you've been saying for years:

Bruininks wants UMN to be one of the top three in the galaxy. But by very significant measures, UMN isn't even in the top three among Big Ten schools. When it comes to things that matter to students and their families -- to the people who pay tuition -- the picture is very different. Debt per student and six-year graduation rates and other key gauges of student welfare put UMN eleventh in the Big Ten.

Once upon a time, before the collapse of the economy shattered our mirages, many of us thought that big, showy things represented academic excellence. Big buildings, fancy programs, gaudy faculty hires at $1 million a pop in salary and lab support. But it is now clear that "little" things like teaching and bottom-up research initiatives are the elements of truly excellent universities.

Rank-and-file faculty, staff, and students at UMN see this reality all too clearly. Too bad that top UMN brass is still mired in its own delusions of grandeur.

Keep up the good work, and good luck before the Regents.

Your friend,