What follows a little bit after the jump is shamelessly plagiarized from a couple of years ago post from my old blog.
I'd initially wanted to write something today new about how soul destroying I'm finding having to write a proposal for Sabbatical Leave for Fall 2014, but I realized I was probably just cranky. . .
The thing is, it's not that big a deal if I don't get the sabbatical. And it's not that big a deal the way the non-academic suits lording it over us have changed the social contract, where these things used to be pretty guaranteed as long as you've been getting good annual reviews. Maybe they are still pretty much guaranteed, and the proposal is just more hoops for us to jump through. I don't know.
And I don't think that my general extreme discomfort with having to sell myself in this way is suitable for a post. [i.e. Why can't I just honestly say that I'm competent most of the time? Sometimes I'm inspired, but about a third of those times it turns out that I was inspired to do something terrible. In my experience, this describes just about everybody. What does this do to our souls to have to constantly pretend otherwise when we sell ourselves to employers and administrative overlords? I don't know.] I suspect that this problem is both too specific (concerning my own social neuroses) and too general (in a capitalist society everyone has to violate all sorts of Gricean norms the while selling themselves).
Instead, what I'd like to post about concerns the presuppositions the designers of these reports make us assent to. For example, in my report I am specifically ordered to show how what I write will make a non-trivial contribution to LSU's own "flagship agenda." This is a classic case of lawyer's presupposition. "Are you going to contribute to the flagship agenda? Yes or no." is just as bad as "Have you stopped beating your wife? Yes or no."
One could start with the political culture of a state that would re-elect Bobby Jindal after more than halving state contributions to higher ed. merely to make up for a tax cut for the wealthy, continue with how at this point more than a third of Louisiana tax receipts are corruptly given to private companies (giving money away to Walmart apparently counts as economic development), continue with how in per capita and total (not median!) wealth Louisiana is one of the richest states in the U.S. (simultaneously with the worst poverty), continue with the effective monopoly the Tiger Athletic Foundation has on LSU alumni contributions, etc. etc. etc.
But by God the well-paid administrators can sure make the rest of us fall over ourselves pretending otherwise. And once again I find myself playing along, even with sentences that begin "My research during the designated period will contribute to the flagship agenda, by. . ." Maybe this isn't so bad. Maybe if the suits didn't tell the rest of the state that we were poised to national greatness (I mean besides the football program) then things would be much worse. I honestly don't know. . . If that's really the situation, then I guess it's no so bad to go along with it.Anyhow, here's the O.P., titled "Excellence, Schmexellence. Feh!" I promise not to repost it for another decade. I promise. Hopefully by then things won't be so much worse that it no longer applies.
--------------------------------------------------------------One of the weirdest things about being an academic in a time where higher education is no longer envisioned as a public good (but rather as a private investment made by the student), is that the management-speak of administrators sometimes becomes more and more galling.
An ex provost at LSU always used to say that we were reaching for "the highest tiers of excellence" as if reaching for excellence wasn't good enough. They even had a huge banner across the thoroughfare that runs through campus that had some trademarked catchphrase with the word "Excellence" in it (if I remember right, something extra stupid like "LSU. Excellence in Motion.").
This always bothered me. Why not, "LSU. A Pretty Good Deal, All things Considered"? Or "LSU. Not Too Shabby. Seriously." Or something like "LSU. We're Basically Competent."
There is actually a bigger issue here. I don't think that excellence is something that non-specialist managers are very good at selecting for. In my experience, the best universities with the highest levels of excellence are the ones where the administrators just work very hard to help to establish competence across the board. Then in that atmosphere, areas of excellence emerge organically. This is what Texas A&M decided to do around twenty-five years or so ago, and the results have been dramatic.
But there are pretty severe selective pressures against the A&M model being implemented today. The opposing idea, vastly more common at second string schools, is the "build to strength" model, where administrators shift resources to programs they perceive as being the strongest.The reason it is selected for is that it centralizes more power (and money*) in the hands of administrators, even in times when resources are declining.
But it is actually severely dysfunctional for all sorts of reasons.
- As I noted, it maintains a lot of the bad aspects of communism, with people at the top making decisions about resource allocations that can't possibly be sensitive to what's really going on. So a Peter department that would have risen to national prominence if it were funded at a level of competence does not, while the Paul department that got all the extra goodies doesn't utilize those effectively.
- Even if the administrators had a perfect track record, at the very best you get increasing mediocrity in most of your programs. But one or two great programs surrounded by mediocrity doesn't make a competent, much less "excellent" university.
- It's a huge waste of resources. The amount of money to get your five lowest performing programs to raise ten spaces on national rankings (just by funding them to a level of competence) is almost certainly far less than to get your best program to raise one space. But this is exactly what "build to strength" does. Again, consider the A&M model. What's the norm for funding department x (numbers of lines, graduate assistantships, etc.) at schools ranked better than us but with comparable budgets? Take that as the null hypothesis and then stay out of the way as much as possible, restricting your meddling to things like putting incompetent programs into receivership. If you can establish a base level of competence, far more excellence will out across the board for much, much less money.
*There's actually an economic reason for the "build to strength" thing. Inflated administrative pay often comes from skimming off of grants. So the "areas of excellence" selected by the administrators will be departments that receive more grants. Which would make sense, were it not for the fact that these very departments are actually subsidized by the humanities, because the grants are so far from making up for the costs in running the grant receiving departments. But the necessity of skimming guarantees this kind of waste.
Given that there is no chance we are going to wheel in executive compensation in this country at universities or anywhere else, this whole post is a pipe dream. If I had god-like powers I'd make all the schools go back to the day where administrators were elected by the faculty senate for a fixed term and didn't get any huge bonus for doing the job. This was actually the system that existed in Germany before Heidegger forced all the universities to adopt the "Fuhrer principle" in higher education. Friends have told me that it was absolutely the model in British education before Thatcher and then "new labor" first gutted the schools and then put them under the boot of the kind of banally evil management people from that movie Brazil. Heidegger himself had actually been elected, but only after the Jews had been purged from the faculty. In any case, Heidegger's Nazi version of higher education is exactly what we have today in the United States, with politicians appointing very powerful top administrators and vastly weakened faculty senates. On some planet in some solar system in some galaxy alien beings rightfully find this outrageous.
**I used Ohio State graphics because in the 1990's the Chronicle of Higher Education actually ran a harshly critical article about the implementation of the "build to strength" model then going on there, focusing mostly on how vastly inefficient it was at raising a university's overall standing. But in spite of the critique, as far as I can tell OSU's experiment very quickly went on to become the norm in most schools of its caliber and below. It would be very interesting to track administrative compensation at these same schools over the same period. It would be very interesting to track administrative compensation at these same schools over the same period. Also, it's an interesting exercise to google your own school name followed by "excellence." You'll find just as much submental things as I did about OSU. In this regard, American higher education is like Lake Woebegone on cyrstal meth.]