Saturday, June 2, 2012

Birthday cakes & matzoh balls: the University of Missouri's strategic plan & the demise of the state university

According to the new president of MU, The University of Missouri Press will be shuttered. There's been an uproar, of course, but it feels postmortem.  (One echo of that uproar is mine, here. Ned Stuckey-French and a friend started a Facebook page in support of the press, which now has over one thousand members.) The rationale is being delivered. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune of June 1, 2012, MU's President Timothy Wolfe, "a former software company president, compared the move to Wal-Mart setting up a successful store in the same location where an independent store went bankrupt. The same products were sold, he said, but Wal-Mart's business model was more successful." He neglects to add the obvious, that Wal-Mart put the independent out of business as part of its business model. In a letter to "friends of University of Missouri Press," sent to anyone who complained, Wolfe writes: "In 2009, in an effort to save the press, University of Missouri administration also began working diligently with the press to redefine its business plan and develop new revenue streams. In all, five consultants from a variety of organizations and with different areas of expertise were hired by the university to provide input and guidance about how to sustain the press long-term."  And so it goes: the university hires no fewer than five consultants (and their retinues) and even they cannot turn a profit. The press is not a revenue stream. 

"Revenue stream" is not the only current in this stream of business language coming from President Wolfe, a former software executive with no university experience.  Like so many others eager to strip the university system of its financial weaknesses, this administrator knows how to spin a web of economic need to make it appear necessary that "inessential" parts of the system get cut (elsewhere he states that the press did not fulfill the university's mission). "With another year of flat funding for the university and an increasing realization that university resources must be aligned with strategic priorities, we made the difficult decision to discontinue our subsidy to the press beginning in the 2013 fiscal year."  If the press has not offered up a large enough revenue stream, that means that the university offers it "a subsidy," or--one can almost hear him utter the words--a kind of academic welfare.  And those queens will surely take advantage of their welfare checks.  

But a revenue stream is crucial to what he terms "new, more sustainable models" for publishing, which "[utilize] a new business model, [according to which] publications could include much more than text, such as simulations, audio and other elements." Because such a move, from a university press to none, is required in order to come up with a new model of publication(!), the action by the president was kept secret: "Out of respect for notifying the remaining ten employees at the press, this decision was not discussed publicly in advance, but please know it was vetted by system and campus administration, including vice presidents, chancellors, provosts and curators."  According to former employees, they had no knowledge they were being laid-off until they heard about the announcement from third parties. Such is the business model of "respect," I guess.  And it hardly goes without saying that these advisers to the president included only other administrators, so many of them, and no faculty.  That faculty are the people who actually read the books, use them in their research, teach out of them, and god knows, need to write them to get ahead in their careers (tenure is not far behind in this renovation, is it?), means nothing to this President.  And he is not alone.

My fascination with the demise of MU press has lead me to the University of Missouri's "Strategic Plan," which I've read with the queasiness of a Cardinals fan watching yesterday's no-hitter against her team.  (You can find the pdf of the plan by googling "University of Missouri strategic priorities.") This plan was written by and for administrators; faculty has precious little to do, aside from dream of ways to pay themselves in this "bad economic climate," and to think about tenure decisions.  The faculty input, as stated under section 3.2 "shall be conveyed to the campus and system administration to help shape future budget allocations."  The verb choice ("to convey an opinion") is curious, but of course apt. And "to help shape" offers no promises to take faculty input seriously, to put it mildly.

This strategic plan begins with a mission statement, which includes the usual: teaching, research, service, economic development.  The nobility of scholarship and teaching as "driven by a sense of public service" comes up in this paragraph.  What follows shows the extent to which this university--like so many others--uses "public service" as a euphemism for doing more with less, a lot less.  The vocabulary of the strategic plan, its lay-out (goals, followed by bullet-points, culminating in who is to do what to achieve the goal) belongs to business.  The first point under the subtitle, "Educational objectives," reads this way:

2.1 Leverage the interdisciplinary networks of the initiatives to create a climate in which students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators engage across demographic, social and interpersonal differences through curricular and co-curricular activities that prepare students for lives and careers in a multicultural global community

Now, I teach English 100 (composition) once every four semesters and I hardly know where to enter that sentence, let alone how to get out of it with dignity intact.  But there's more, which follows the sub-sub-title, "Action Needed":

--Create a database that will track interdisciplinary networks within each initiative and across initiatives.
Responsible: Informatics Institute and members of "Architecture of Collaboration" (Mizzou Advantage-funded project)

I'm not going to argue that our economy is flush with resources, that we can expand all the programs a university has to offer, but I would argue that the strategic plan IS about creating jobs, not simply stream-lining.  Who is going to create the database?  Who is in the Informatics Institute?  Who belongs to the "Architecture of Collaboration," whose quotation marks scare me?  And what is Mizzou Advantage?  These are all sub-institutions that require funding, support, and personnel. 

Google Mizzou Advantage and you find a website devoted to public relations and to the all-important pursuit of revenue.  They're creating "networks" of collaborators in four areas, it seems, including food and the media.  We're talking real world here, not any airy fairy place of intellectual inquiry: "MU faculty and staff have formed networks of collaborators, both on and off-campus, to focus on real-world problems centered around these areas.  Their efforts will help secure external funding, recruit top students, attract prominent scholars and scientists, create jobs, and improve quality of life." As for students who benefit, the benefits will be "real," not intangible: "MU is also developing new educational programs in these four areas to give students a competitive edge in the global marketplace." Click the "partners" tab and you get a request for businesses to collaborate with MU.  And so it goes.

If you go to the Informatics Institute website, you discover an attempt to join computer resources across the campus and the region.  The institute itself has a director and several staff, of course.  I can't leave the site before quoting this bullet-point, about research objectives:

  • Building teams of faculty members and professionals to foster main informatics research thrusts;
It's very difficult to parry such thrusts, such spears to the heart of the English language.  I'm hardly the first, nor shall I be the last, to note the piss poor writing skills of most university administrators and their ghost writers.  But I feel blinded, or is it blind-sided, by these sentences, these objectives, these bullet-pointed, bullet-addled documents. I want to argue that we should all be reading these documents, parsing them, considering their arguments, engaging their authors.  If we do not, we're doomed.  (That we might be in any case goes without saying.)  One more choice administrative sentence before I go.  This comes from "Goal 2: Build the Mizzou Advantage, a set of five focused, interdisciplinary initiatives that capitalize on existing strenghts and bring new international distinction to MU."  It's the first sentence in the section "Food for the Future":

"Birthday cakes and matzoh balls, the economic power of U.S. agriculture, C├ęzanne's fruits, the importance of nutrition to health, humanitarian efforts to end hunger around the world--these all attest to the central role that food plays in every aspect of human life and our urgent need to better understand its production, distribution, consumption, and cultural meanings." The paragraph ends with this assertion of the importance of food: "It will draw faculty from other disciplines eager to work collaboratively on this theme, central to human existence."

The problem with writing like this is that it so lacks nutrients, even as it suggests we might eat cake. But how am I to tell a student that he or she must use detail, write with precision, use examples, when the very leadership of the university is writing sentences like these.  Hey, they've got jobs, and my students most likely will not.  Perhaps I should resign myself to that cliched and yet beautiful future pointed to by our outgoing Chancellor, Virginia Hinshaw, (seriously, click that link) when she writes in her last newsletter: "All of this [she refers to bullet points, of course] has been possible because we paddled hard toward a shared goal, and our momentum is now strong because of partnering, both internally and externally."

Note: The book jacket above is for James Caron's University of Missouri Press volume, Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.  Jim is a colleague of mine.  He worked for many years on that book.  One of the University of Missouri Press's specialties has been in Mark Twain Studies


Jonathan Morse said...

"I hardly know where to enter that sentence, let alone how to get out of it with dignity intact" -- worthy of Mencken, if not indeed of Twain or Austen!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you for writing this!

You know what they say: "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit." We know what's going on with this writing: the eternal struggle between the unbrilliant and the educated.

Please say hello to Jim Caron for me. I was his editor at the UMP. (Before half of us got laid off!)

--Julie Schroeder

susan said...

Will do, Julie. Thanks for writing, and hope you've found new employment . . . aloha, Susan