Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three Minutes of Input

at the University of Minnesota

Board of Regents Open Forum

Eva von Dassow, once again, speaks truth to power...

This text is from the FRPE site.
We are told that the university is in financial crisis, a crisis so severe as to necessitate eliminating academic units and programs. Yet, as set forth in the budget plan for fiscal 2011, the university’s budget continues to grow: total revenues, assets, and expenditures are all increasing. Indeed the state appropriation has declined, but only to 2006 levels. That doesn’t look like a severe financial crisis. Meanwhile, we look around and see the administration dedicating huge sums to new initiatives, new construction, selected sports – and to itself: expenditures for central administration keep rising. Financial stringency leaves undiminished the numbers of vice presidents, not to mention the salaries of top coaches.

No, these highly-paid positions are not to be reduced; rather, the university must shed faculty. To cut costs in its burgeoning budget the university must slash the numbers and variety of courses it offers students, whose tuition it keeps raising. It must shrink graduate programs, withdraw instructional support for the curriculum that remains, and cut funds for research and public engagement.

This is how to achieve excellence? This is how to guarantee undergraduates an extraordinary education? This is how we become one of the top three universities in the universe?

Meanwhile, we are all asked to participate in the quest to generate new sources of revenue, as well as finding ways to hold down costs and enhance “productivity.” Yet the university’s current budget model effectively requires units to compete against each other for funds, inhibiting the collaboration that would best serve the institution both financially and academically. Now the plan is to cut our way to distinction by pruning the tree of knowledge.

All of the verbigeration about “excellence,” about “strategic investments,” about “advancing quality,” and so on, is deployed to obscure the goal of using the present financial crisis as a tool for starving certain parts of the university in order to feed others. No explicit relationship is ever articulated between revenue generation and other elements of the propaganda. But the objective is evident: those programs engaged in the production of knowledge that is readily turned into money are the targets of “investment,” while the rest are to be downsized into an efficient credit-and-degree factory, featuring a handful of well-supported “star” faculty to make the programs look good – while as much curriculum as possible is delivered by the cheapest possible instructors.

Accordingly, the College of Liberal Arts, which has already lost dozens of faculty positions, stands to lose dozens more, while the construction of a new biomedical facility is to include the addition of 40 new faculty. Certainly biomedical research is valuable, but why should students pay $11,000 per year to get an etiolated liberal-arts education on an assembly-line model? CLA is a significant revenue generator, teaching by far the most students while receiving proportionately the lowest share of the state appropriation, so that CLA students effectively subsidize the rest of the university through their tuition. (Same goes for IT.) This cash cow will be milked yet harder now – but at the price of the quality the administration advertises, and to the detriment of the university’s educational mission.

The Regents ought to use their authority to exercise far closer scrutiny of the university’s expenditures and how they do or do not align with its core mission of education, research, and public engagement. The present administration’s plans would transform what was erstwhile a great research university into a handmaiden of industry, where, for the price of a real education, students receive gussied-up vocational training and exit in debt.

Amen, sister.

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