Long ago, in a land far, far away (maybe England?), universities were privileged sanctuaries where a community of scholars could study and reflect, shielded by tenure from the worries of the “real” world.
So much for fairy tales.
The climate at Michigan State University today is far more corporate than collegial, more about revenue than about research and learning. Especially in times as tough as these in Michigan, it’s all about the money. Unless your program brings in enough Benjam$ns through grants and endowments (or it graduates enough powerful and affluent alumni willing to go to bat for you), yours could be the next program on the chopping block.
More videos from the meeting:
- Friends of Geoscience fight for their program
- Chicano-Latino Studies
- American Studies
- Vet Tech
- Music Therapy
- Graduate Employees Union
Bottom line is that Michigan State University faces drastic cuts in revenue from the state of Michigan. At the MSU Board of Trustees meeting on the day before Halloween, President Lou Anna K. Simon and Provost Kim Wilcox unveiled their long-awaited and much-feared response – a long laundry list of academic programs and operations that will be eliminated, reduced or restructured. The administration analysis is that the only way to maintain current spending would require raising tuition by 10% (it will rise by ‘only’ 5% instead).
Word of the draconian cuts began to leak mid-week. Only Music Therapy was told earlier in the month that their program was doomed. By Friday, most of the other victims had learned their fate from their deans, but no public announcements had yet been made. I tried to use Twitter to tweet the news as Provost Kim Wilcox read the seemingly never-ending list of programs slated for execution or other punishments, but I couldn’t keep up – and I type fast. (Click here for the full listing.)
Simon and Wilcox insisted the decision-making was both transparent and democratic.
Simon: There’s nothing in the list that was crafted centrally for this round of change.
Wilcox: This comes from an effort based on recommendations from campus. Certainly some pieces were modified because of discussions within the provost’s office, with other groups on campus, but it is motivated by campus discussion.
Simon: We agreed to transparency.
(Transcribed from my tape)
In response, I have a few questions that I will continue to ask as the process unfolds, as well as some current grades to award:
- Bottom up? Transparent? – As Seth and Amy on Saturday Night Live say — really? Saying it is so does not make it so. The deans whose programs were targeted apparently had a seat at the table. But deans who want to fare well in this environment know that their fortunes requiring giving the administration what it wants. I know at least two faculty who were completely blindsided by the news that the programs were slated for extinction. Both had not even realized that their particular heads were on the block.
- Current Grade: Incomplete. Let’s see how transparent and democratic the next round is, as these recommendations wend their way through the system.
- Where’s the data? – The Wilcox report is shockingly devoid of any financial data. MSU boasts of its research record, but this study wouldn’t pass peer review. These cuts are ostensibly being made because state revenues have dropped, so where are the figures about how much we need to save? Where are the dollar amounts attached to each program? Where is the overview that shows how this plan adds up?
- Current Grade: 0.0
- What are the variables? Where’s the analysis? What alternatives were considered, rejected and why? – At the bottom of this page is a list of degree-granting colleges that comes from the MSU website. Those we have made BIG AND BOLD are the ones slated to suffer cuts. For starters, can we start the conversation with an explanation of why certain colleges were spared completely? Too important? No fat or deadwood? Too classy to be cut? Or, alternately, were the departments that took the hits perceived as too meddlesome, too dowdy or too frivolous for a university on the make?
- Current Grade: 0.0
- What is the impact on human subjects? – Like penitents seeking absolution from the medieval church, faculty, students, alumni and other constituents came to the Board of Trustees to plead their cases. Many alternated among anxiety, anger, agitation and sadness. Representatives from the Graduate Employees Union talked about the stress on research and teaching assistants who worry about their income and their health care. Where was the administration’s compassionate plan to pay for counseling and other support services? What kind of strategies will be implemented to provide informal opportunities for those affected to vent and eventually to grieve? President Simon is known more for her toughness than her willingness to entertain opposing views. Admittedly, that’s how power is often wielded in big institutions, but this is not a time when the iron fist should forget the velvet glove. As the video shows, the powerful did not always do a good job of hiding the fact they weren’t really listening. Coldness by design – or just by accident? Also, one of the rare times when I saw President Simon give an impassioned speech was when she talked about diversity. Yet an unscientific look at people who appeared that day hoping to save their programs made it seem that the ax was falling disproportionately on programs where faculty and students were predominantly women and minorities. Where’s the analysis of the impact on diversity? I asked but was told none is yet available.
- Current Grade: Needs immediate improvement.
My reading of the report issued by Provost Wilcox shows that the colleges listed bellow as BIG AND BOLD are the only ones currently slated to suffer academic program cuts:
- COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES
- Residential College in Arts and Humanities
- COLLEGE OF ARTS AND LETTERS
- ELI BROAD COLLEGE OF BUSINESS
- COLLEGE OF COMMUNICATION ARTS AND SCIENCES
- COLLEGE OF EDUCATION
- College of Engineering
- College of Human Medicine
- James Madison College
- College of Law (affiliated)
- Lyman Briggs College
- COLLEGE OF MUSIC
- COLLEGE OF NATURAL SCIENCE
- College of Nursing
- College of Osteopathic Medicine
- COLLEGE OF SOCIAL SCIENCE
- COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE
Please consider this the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. Use the space below to leave your comments, corrections and contributions or email me at lansingonline AT gmail.com. The wisdom of the crowd is needed more than ever to make sure MSU makes it through these times without losing either its head or its heart.
On a personal note, I wish that I could offer you a bit more of Zoltan’s optimism and Lash’s humor to leaven these gray days. If you don’t know those names, more’s the pity, but at least my name is as unusual as theirs and I hope to maintain their commitment to asking questions that make people squirm.
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