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Is the University Suffering From the Malady of Taj Mahalitis?

Next U of M Building Project?

Jim Chen is a former University of Minnesota law school faculty member who is now the dean at the University of Louisville. His excellent and always thought-provoking pieces appear on the blog Moneylaw, that is "dedicated to the art of winning an unfair academic game." How do those of us, further down the academic totem pole with respect to both resources and what passes for reputation, compete with the so-called Big Boys and Girls? See dean Chen's blog.

He has another outstanding piece,
"Wilkins Micawber, dean and professor of law," from which I will quote liberally.

It starts with my all-time favorite Dickens quote:

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

This he interprets as: "Live within your means."

Then follows:

I've learned this much in the past year and a half: Never let an economic crisis go to waste. The catastrophic decline in economic fortunes around the world has not spared American higher education, and that disaster gives moral succor to those of us who find our highest calling in doing more for our students with less from our endowments and appropriations.

The broader economy is witnessing the resurgence of the gleefully frugal: recession-happy people who "happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses" by living a "mantra [of] cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair." This phenomenon “implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value.”

A similar revival should sweep American higher education. Let me be clear about what I mean. I vehemently oppose hatchet jobs on educational budgets. In full accord with Leon Botstein, I believe that a recession is a time for expanding, not contracting, the academy's instructional resources. If you have to freeze something for its own sake, something I'd strongly oppose in any forum where I had a voice, I'd much rather freeze salaries (especially, and exclusively if I could, at the high end) than hiring.

But not all spending is equal.
No less than private companies, universities are susceptible to what Herman Holtz, 100 Ways to Boost Your Firm's Profitability, has called "Taj Mahalitis." Ambitious, financially marginal organizations can easily fall victim to the urge to splurge, to present themselves to customers and competitors alike in grandiose fashion.

Perhaps it is time for President Bruininks, Provost Sullivan, Provost and soon-to-be Provost/Dean, Frank Cerra, to join the ranks of the gleefully frugal?

Perhaps they need to consult an interpreter of maladies?

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