15 October 2010

Everything is on the table

How many of us have heard this from the dean of our college or the provost?  Lots of us, but clearly not all of us.  Because, in fact, not everything is on the table.  A small number of things are on the table--things the administration doesn't think are "exciting" or "innovative", but which exist at the core of education.  Teaching itself is on the table.  Foreign languages are on the table.  Writing is on the table.  Any course with fewer than a hundred students is on the table.  Service to the rural community is on the table.  

It has been pointed out repeatedly that the overwhelming majority of the university operating budget is in salaries, as if this is not as it should be.  Education is primarily a human activity; creation of knowledge and art is a human activity.  What else should the overwhelming majority of the budget be spent on?  

But back to "everything is on the table", even when it isn't.  Why does that keep being said?   No one is proposing the innovative idea of trying to run universities without presidents or provosts or deans.  No one is proposing an experiment with a flatter administrative model.   No one is proposing that administrative salaries be linked directly to faculty salaries. These things are not on the table.  I'm not suggesting that they should be, but as long as they are not, everything is not on the table.  

However if we keep being told that everything is on the table, there must be a perceived value to that claim.   If someone does the same thing repeatedly and it has the same effect, ultimately one must assume that the effect is desired.  

The primary effect of saying "Everything is on the table" is to intimidate the audience--it translates as "Your job, your field, your teaching, your department, your program of research is on the table.  Justify it.  Prove not just that it is productive and useful and of general cultural value--prove that it is better than his or hers.  Show us change--we can't do business as usual.  If your program is working--you and your colleagues are producing research or art, your students are completing their work in ways that show that they are learning, your majors are getting jobs or getting into graduate school--that is not enough.  Things must change.  What is enough?  Everything is on the table.  And anything we don't like or aren't interested in or perceive as too labor intensive--that is going to go."  And when that happens, everyone else, all the survivors, breathe a sigh of relief quietly and submissively, because everything was on the table and their thing maybe got reduced, maybe got burned, but survived.  

To infer the goal from the effect, isn't the goal a smaller, quieter, even more submissive faculty, not merely cheaper, but easier to "lead"?

Be honest.  

Some things are on the table.  Most things aren't. 

But a compliant faculty is priceless.

Lynn Gordon

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