• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


When Shorthand Attacks

Language choices and budget choices.

May 26, 2015

“We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.” -- Steven Long, Vice Chairman of the Academic Planning Committee, University of North Carolina Board of Governors

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors voted to eliminate 46 degree programs across the state, including political science at Elizabeth City State University and Jazz at North Carolina Central University. As a political scientist with a passion for jazz, those hurt.

I don’t know all of the variables involved in the decisions. Junius Gonzales, the senior vice president for academic affairs for the system, referred to the decision process as an art, not a science, and that sounds right to me. I won’t pass judgment on the individual decisions because I don’t have the information to do so fairly.  

That said, I had to cough when I read the statement from Vice Chairman Long, above. “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is…”

I would guess that Mr. Long was speaking in shorthand. He was trying to convey the (correct) idea that institutions have budgets, and that resources allocated to program A are unavailable to be allocated to program B. Therefore, if program A struggles to enroll students, and program B struggles to teach all the students it has, there’s a plausible first-level argument for moving resources from A to B.  

It’s never quite that simple, of course. Experienced administrators can rattle off the variables that complicate the issue. Some programs have very little inherent cost, since they’re essentially recombinations of other things you’re teaching anyway.  Some programs have very few majors, but serve vastly greater numbers of students. (Math is the clearest example: math majors may be few, but nearly every student takes some math at some point.)  Some programs are important for local political reasons, or because of large donors. Some programs have faculty on the brink of retirement, and the retirements will solve the problem bloodlessly if you can just wait another year.  Some programs that struggle as stand-alones can thrive when under the umbrella of something larger. That’s why it’s an art, rather than a science.

But still. There are times when internal reallocations make sense, which inevitably means picking winners and losers. That the ones who lose will disagree is pretty much a given.  It’s to be expected, and is not, in itself, a sign that something is wrong.

The trick is in remembering that the survivors shouldn’t just survive. You want them to thrive. That means, among other things, making it clear that you understand why they’re there.  

Most educators didn’t go into the field to get rich. (That’s especially true in the community college world.) They do it because they believe in what they’re doing. Whether they’re teaching, tutoring, helping students navigate financial aid, counseling, or maintaining buildings, part of the joy of working in education is knowing that the core of what you do benefits other people.  When you do your work well, you make the world a better place. You leave your customers better than when you found them. There’s real satisfaction in that.

Moving quickly from “colleges are institutions with budgets” to “we’re capitalists” does violence to the highest motives that educators have. It implicitly sends a message to the surviving faculty and staff that they’re just cogs, and that if they become defective, they’ll be replaced. This is not the way to motivate creative people. And I don’t want faculty and staff who aren’t creative.

Academics are known for being picky about language, and I’ll admit to moments of that. (I’m a charter member of “Team Oxford Comma.”) But in this case, the objection isn’t just stylistic.  What was probably intended as shorthand wound up sending a deeply counterproductive message.  

In the public eye like that, it’s worth taking the extra moment to think through the finer points of a statement. “We want to maintain quality, so we made some difficult choices” flatters the survivors. “We’re capitalists” insults them. It’s worth taking the time to make the distinction.



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