17 October 2010

Funding Priorities in Hard Times

A while back, in writing a satirical lexicon of terms for university procedures and institutions, I defined a university as:
University, n. (1) (arch.) collection of people paid to engage in research, teaching, learning and service for the benefit of the larger community; (2) structured set of positions (temporarily filled by people); (3) collection of buildings continually being torn down and rebuilt, usually surrounded by trees and insufficient parking.
Unfortunately, I think this reflects more truth than I would have liked to believe when I wrote it. In a rational world, it should be clear that if a university is place to create and share knowledge the only crucial parts of it are people: people as students, as teachers and often simultaneously as researchers or artists.

A university (or any school really) is only a school when people are thinking and talking and trying to get closer to what best accounts for how the world works and how best to represent the concerns of humanity and share that with others. That can be done in brand-new, beautiful, well-equipped buildings or in tents. When the society as a whole is doing well, it can and should invest in beautiful and useful buildings, complex and useful technology, and convenient and well-planned landscapes. But when money is tight, the focus of spending in a university should be on the people--on making the university run. A university that is not teaching students is not a university. A university that is not supporting people to think and discover and share is not a university. No matter how beautiful the buildings, no matter how thoroughly equipped they may be, a university is the people in it.

We would be unwise to fail in our duty of maintenance for the physical body of the university, its buildings and grounds, but we would be far more unwise to fail in our duty to our faculty and students in supporting them in learning and teaching. We fail our students when we increase the cost of tuition and fees every year--as though educating students is only a profitable to the individual, not to the entire community. We fail our students when we decrease the time they have with teachers. We fail our faculty when we reduce their numbers and do not recognize their dual functions of pursuing knowledge and of sharing knowledge and therefore their need for the community of other students and teachers. We fail the university when we pretend it is the buildings. We fail the university when we act as though building new buildings is more important than keeping up those we already have and more important than supporting faculty and students in creation and discovery and sharing of knowledge.

It has been noted that when we move out of these hard times, we will be grateful for the money spent on new stuff—new buildings or equipment. Maybe. Maybe we will consider it already out of date. It is easier to build buildings than to build or maintain faculty and students. In times like these, we must again consider what a university is. The other day I heard someone refer to the university as its administration only. That is wrong--a university is all its people--its students and its faculty and those who work to make the work of the students and faculty more effective.

What does that mean from practical point of view? It means that in bad economic times the primary function of university funding should be to make the university operate. The accounting convenience of separating the budget into a capital budget and an operating budget and then allocating money to the capital budget while slashing the operating budget is wrong. We have to stop thinking of things as permanent and people as transitory.

New buildings can wait.

Education should not.

Lynn Gordon


  1. P.S. For anyone who wants to point out righteously that building requires workers, and therefore creates jobs, I will respond equally righteously that teaching/research/art creates jobs too. (In fact, a major complaint about teaching and research and art is that they are labor intensive--they require too many workers.)

  2. They say that It's easy being a captain in calm waters. Based on the questions now being raised regarding the future identity of the University (smaller research institution vs. PUI) I have no confidence that our administration is equipped to make good decisions about the long-term health of the university. This uncertainty, especially in light of the current fiscal climate, suggests that our leadership is reactionary not visionary.

    As the economy cycles, we will again be faced with similar hardships in the future. Will we continue to have these identity crises each time? While many states are faced with similarly bleak fiscal years, some have realized that there are strategic growth opportunities. In contrast, we seem to be in retrenchment mode, which may ultimately leave us in a considerably less competitive position to recruit new students and faculty.

    Today, we need administrative leaders who have successfully weathered fiscal challenges in the past while maintaining quality programs, strengthening our competitiveness, and enhancing our attractiveness as a destination campus for regional students. We need strategic investments in new programs that would have long-term returns that would have broader impacts than the programs themselves. We need leaders that can stomach uncertainty and be capable of understanding and evaluating investment risks. We need administrators who are not afraid of losing their positions in order to ensure the stability of our institution. But if you asked me my opinion, it would be vote of no-confidence in our leadership.


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