Monday, November 5, 2007

Inspiring Words at the University of Minnesota from OurProvost?

Universities as places and spaces of imagination

"The very depth and breadth of a great university can ensure that 'imaginative leaps' occur both within and across disciplines."

OurProvost (aka E. Thomas Sullivan or ET) has one of his hortatory pieces in the Minnesota Daily.

I assume that he wrote it, but it could easily be the product of the marketing firm responsible for Driven To Discover.

The topic is imagination and its importance at great universities. This is a straw-man topic that university administrators use as pontification opportunities. It is unlikely to generate any argument, let alone an actual intellectual exchange or, to use adminspeak, conversation.

The piece sounds like what a candidate for the presidency of a research university might say or write. It is necessary for an administrator to accumulate a portfolio of these feel good pieces, even if they are in the Minnesota Daily rather than the Washington Post or the Chronicle of Higher Education or other sand boxes where the big girls and boys play (e.g. Mark Yudof).

OurProvost goes through the usual drill. He mentions Einstein, Hurwicz, Phillips, Dewey, MacNeice, and Atwood. This is a signal to us that he is a well-read and educated man, even though he is a lawyer, and a serial ex-LawSchoolDean. Unfortunately the piece is marred by an irritating overuse of quotation marks. For example: "imaginative leaps," "accidents," and "primary function." There is an amusing blog devoted to poking fun at this practice: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

Also, included in the piece is an ode to tenure. This is a signal to faculty that OurProvost is OK, we (the faculty) are OK, and not to worry. Ten years after the fact the University of Minnesota administration is still trying to recover from collateral damage due to the tenure wars. Thus a genuflection to tenure is de rigueur.

The piece ends with the type of rhetorical question that professional politicians use. Are motherhood and apple pie good things? Am I being too enthusiastic about these issues? I truly value your opinion on these matters...

OurProvost asks: "Am I overvaluing the value and role of the imagination in universities?"

Naw, I don't think so...

By the way, to see this genre done right consult the Harvard presidential inaugural address of the historian Drew Gilpin Faust entitled "Ambitious Imaginings."

Sound familiar?

Ciao, Bonzo

1 comment:

Brian said...

Dear Bonzo,

Your post resonates. What indeed is the difference between a land-grant institution that aspires to be the third-best in the universe and a private university that has been among the top in the world for nearly 400 years?

As an almost-grad of UMN, a long-ago grad of the other place, and a teacher at a state college, I have been thinking about this a lot. When I ask my students what they think the purpose of higher education is, I hear a lot about "better jobs" and social maturation and training and so forth. I do not hear about love of learning or desire to learn or learning in any fashion whatsoever. Harvard maybe has the luxury of devoting itself to intellectual inquiry, but other places (and in this unfortunately I must include UMN) have restricted themselves to a much narrower scope: training the populace so they can be more "successful" in the marketplace. Bruininks and his corporate lackeys can use all the vacuous abstractions they want in puff pieces, as you rightly point out. Where is the passion for learning??