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Of Leaders and Lightning Rods
September 27, 2009 - 9:40pm

One of my major growth moments as an administrator came in my first year. In a meeting about course scheduling, I made a crack about how teaching too many sections of composition in a single semester can be excessively draining. (My language was a bit less polished.) I had actually done that load myself, so I spoke from experience, but it was very much with my faculty perspective.

After the meeting, a professor with whom I had a good relationship pulled me aside and mentioned that with the office I now held, I wasn't free to make comments like that anymore. When I spoke only for myself, it didn't really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions. What I had intended as a solidaristic expression of grading fatigue came across as either tone-deaf or simply insulting, depending on how charitable you wanted to be.

She was right. I hadn't thought through the implications of saying unguarded things from the position I held. What would once have been 'candid' was suddenly 'insensitive,' if not 'just plain stupid.' If I wanted to be successful in the new role, I had to own the role, including its more constrictive elements. (That's why I blog under a pseudonym. If my name and office were attached to it, I'd have to be a lot more chipper and, to my mind anyway, less interesting.)

Which brings me to Mark Yudof's Q-and-A in the New York Times this weekend.

Mark Yudof is the President of the University of California system. Like most public systems throughout the country, the California system has taken some devastating financial hits over the last year. Of course, the California system has burdens of its own. Its governor is, well, who he is. The state has a weird prediliction for governing by plebiscite (they call them 'propositions'), with all that that entails. The UC system has several structural tensions, most of which (I'd argue) flow from failing to designate and stick with a single flagship. (The SUNY system carries this flaw to an extreme, with predictable results for its standing.) It has a history of extremely contentious labor-management relations, for reasons I won't pretend to understand. And the Great Recession has hit California hard.

In other words, this is a difficult spot even for an effective leader. It's a time for someone in a high position to step up and make a real contribution to the public debate on behalf of higher education, even if that means putting aside his own personal frustrations and speaking consistently with his official role.

Alas. Instead of thoughtful discussions of why the public should continue to support a university system in difficult times, we get this:

And education?

The shine is off of it. It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.

Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs,” to use a buzzword.

Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.

The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?

Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

This isn't public talk. This is backroom talk.

First, of course, it's stupid. The difference between a furlough and a salary cut shows up the following year, when that year's raise is calculated from a baseline. A furlough doesn't count against a baseline, but a salary cut does. So a furlough doesn't just "sound more temporary"; it actually is. A furlough hurts once; a salary cut hurts as long as you work there. While the public at large may or may not care much about the distinction, the employees -- the folks to whom he claims to listen -- certainly do.

Second, though, it does absolutely nothing to plant any doubts that cutting higher ed is worthwhile. "The shine is off it," and as any kid from West Philadelphia knows, academic practices like looking stuff up are for ninnies. If even the President of the University doesn't much care for education, why should anybody else?

I don't know Yudof, and he doesn't know me. But I can guess what was going through his mind. Basically, he's jaded. He gets attacked a lot -- whether fairly, unfairly, or both, I'll leave to my left coast readers -- and after a while all those attacks start to sound the same. So he's impatient with them, and quick to apply shortcuts to what he considers the real issues, if any.

Behind closed doors, that's standard procedure. But an interview with the Times isn't private.

This is one of those times to put personal authenticity aside, and to play your role. Yes, he may be tired of talk of cuts; I know I am, and he faces cuts of an order of magnitude larger than anything I've faced. I can understand a certain impatience with what seems like the umpteenth go-round of the same drill. But he needs to remember that most of the people who read the interview, and who vote in the state of California, aren't wrapped up in his daily reality. They're looking to him to express the needs of the University system, and to make a good case that they're consistent with the needs of California.

When he substitutes his own little tantrum for a chance to express the needs and benefits of the system, he misses a real opportunity, and generates a real opportunity cost for the university. As someone who doesn't know him, I don't give two hoots what Mark Yudof thinks. But I do care what the President of the University of California thinks. Telling us the former instead of the latter is an easy mistake to make, but a crucial one.

It gets worse. By the end of the interview, when the discussion inevitably turns to compensation, we get:

What do you think of the idea that no administrator at a state university needs to earn more than the president of the United States, $400,000?

Will you throw in Air Force One and the White House?

While not technically wrong, this is tone-deaf in the extreme. (If you want to draw a comparison, go with the average salary of a backup catcher in the major leagues.) The UC system employs untold numbers of adjuncts, postdocs, part-time staff, and others whose pay is simply terrible. These are the folks who need to get the job done on the ground if the system is to mean anything at all. Sounding like Marie Antoinette is no way to inspire the troops, except maybe to mutiny.

Making a living in higher ed administration is a privilege. It's a chance to set the background conditions against which untold numbers of people can do their best work. It's the kind of privilege that calls for a certain humility. Yes, it's work, and yes, luring people out of faculty roles to do it will require paying them. But to use an opportunity like Yudof's just to bitch and moan is a sign that he's lost sight of what he's doing.

This is an appalling performance. I hope he's not too far gone to recognize that.

 

 

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