Rowing in Tar? Part the First
Recent develpments at BigU have been pretty depressing: The Double Zahavy, ScrewU, MoreU, Tuition Bingo, Strange Academic Priorities, Light Rail Dog in the Manger Behavior...
Being in the middle of flyover land, aka the Midwest, OurLeaders often fail to notice that there is another audience out there, aside from the Strib, the legislature, and all of us Lake Wobegon residents. That audience has a lot to say about how the delusions of grandeur are going to play out. They give the grants, make the awards, elect to the National Academies, rank programs, and generally determine how we will be perceived nationally and internationally. Contrary to what you might hear from OurLeaders, we are not doing so well in comparison with our peer universities, or even the other BigTen schools.
Waves of propaganda spew forth periodically about phenomenal progress from an abysmal baseline, e.g. our four year graduation rate in 1992 was 18% and now it is up to 45%, ergo we are doing a fantastic job, even though the competition - that would be other BigTen schools - is killing us on this stat. Anyone who dares to deviate from the party line, "one of the top three research universities in the world [sic]," is accused of being willing to settle for mediocrity or called a doubter. The usual kind of McCarthian bluster and appeal to an unthinking herd mentality is used to try to beat any opposition down. The words dialog and conversation are used by OurLeaders without ever actually engaging in them, witness OurProvost's decision that he really didn't have the time for the blog promised last September ironically titled "Conversations." Provosts at other institutions blog, and some university presidents - e.g. Yudof - teach. With a chief of staff and an office full of minions, somehow you'd think time could be found? While I was at 3M, I don't remember the VP for research having a chief of staff. Both of our provosts do. The dean of the Medical School does. Our best dean - in the College of Pharmacy - does not. Maybe OurGuv was right about cutbacks in the administration being a good place to start?
Without close examination talking about dialog and conversation seems to sell. If you continue to say something often enough, people might even start to believe it. That's how marketing campaigns like Driven to Discover work. Panem et circensa or a new football stadium are the apparent answers to morale problems. And occasionally we can buy some heavy hitters - e.g. Jacko and Sainfort for half a mil - while paying many of the current hard-working faculty peanuts. Reminds me of a bad professional baseball or football team, but I thought this was supposed to be a university?
Unfortunately there is a great big world out there and it is moving at a considerably faster pace than ours. While the administration fiddled, Health Informatics and Bioinformatics crashed and burned. Now in a rush to catch up, the administration is ill-equipped and error prone. The Whitaker foundation scattered new biomedical engineering buildings throughout the country like grass seed. But not here, even though we had quite an advantage ten years ago. Once again we got a little too cute about it and got caught with our hand in the cookie jar. How many Bakken chairs did we have? How many heads of biomedical engineering? And how many millions of dollars of NSF money did the university have to return when the last one left?
There is lots of blame to go around but in the end it comes down to leadership.
Read a little on the recent outside searches done for president and provost at the University of Iowa. They've hired Sally Mason from Purdue and Wallace Loh from Seattle. These people know how to walk the talk. Keep an eye on Iowa, Purdue, and Ohio State in the next few years. They are our real competition and they are stockpiling good administrators for the long haul, while we continue to do recycling projects. Change is touted as a good thing by our administrators, except of course in the administration itself...