Wednesday, July 8, 2015

dumb and dumber

Maybe you have heard about the recent goings on in our great state of Wisconsin. Specifically, the Governor, in January announced huge budget cuts to the UW-System. If you're an out-of-stater, that means that there will likely be around 300 million dollars worth of cuts to the various University of Wisconsin schools around the state (holy crap!). Those cuts are already starting to manifest themselves in myriad ways. People are freaking out and looking for different jobs; students are pissed; faculty is not pleased; this is not a good sitch.

Over the last seven months or so, it's been a hot topic, with everybody having an opinion. You get the usual garbage about how all professors are overpaid, the reasonable assertion that the tenure system is a problem (that nobody wants to seriously touch), and of course the sentiment that many in academia think they are better than you. You don't really hear any solutions, just mostly bitching.

Nobody in the UW System wants to admit their huge organization is a model of inefficiency and bloat. Note that I'm not in the meetings; I could be wrong, they could be looking to actually improve operational efficiency, rather than just survive. Sadly, that would be reactive in nature, rather than proactive, and indicative of a leadership problem. One truth that is undeniable is that the UW-System is not prepared to handle this kind of a cut.

And we're seeing the reaction to the cuts: slashing employees, and continuing business as usual: upping class sizes, increasing professor workload, all contributing to a increasingly crappy education experience for kids that don't know any better. Why would any professors want to come here? Why are the professors that made the first cull willing to stay? Why would prospective students want to come here?

Editor's note: I sit with a unique vantage point. My wife is a professor, and I know tons of professors. While neither envious nor resentful of their jobs, I am envious of my wife's #BrainPower.

I mentioned the bitching; there is plenty of that. Most of it is directed at the Governor for his bonehead surprise budget cut move. Very understandable. Attacking one of the largest organizations in the state like this is unprecedented, worrisome, and the Governor deserves to be called out and fired. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he is an idiot. However, the fact that the UW-System is so crippled demonstrates a stark lack of competence from leadership.

Planning for what might go wrong, planning for the future, constantly trying to improve, that's what bright people do. That they are so unprepared is terrifying. In the real world, when something like this occurs, you either sink or swim, or doggy-paddle until one of the two happens. I'm thinking we'll either see some sort of bail out from the state, or a lot of doggy paddling. When you're out hiking in the woods and you get attacked by a bear, you don't get pissed at the bear. You get pissed at yourself for not being prepared to handle a bear encounter. Well that's what reasonable people would likely do.

This is where it gets so ghastly - much of academia's collective rage is directed only at the Governor. I haven't heard anything about questioning UW leadership. Surely even thinking of holding anybody other than the Governor's feet to the fire is pure blasphemy. Has partisanship gotten so bad that the Governor's party affiliation trumps the typical hatred for old white dudes that poorly run huge organizations? It's brainwashed ideological tribalism, and it's scary as hell.


So what are we left with? A bunch of close-minded beta simpletons that are letting their voices be heard, man.

There is hope though: the UW-System is productive at a couple things: churning out increasingly worthless graduates, producing meaningful research, playing a huge role in the local and statewide economy, among other things. But they could be better.

What would I do if I ran a college?

1. I'd take in fewer students, lowering class sizes, allowing professors more time to focus on professoring. Time to do research. Time to engage students, and be engaged by students. We all learn differently and at different levels, accounting for that takes time.

2. Bye-bye tenure. Not doing consistent and solid research, not running extracurricular or enriching programs, clubs, or activities - then you're not tenured. There are shitty tenured professors out there. Deny that all you want, but it's the truth. Often, tenure is a direct gateway to professional sloth.

3. Administrative and operations employees no longer get paid for checking facebook. No more sending three employees to plug in a computer (I'm serious). You want your office painted, you do it yourself.

4. Professors can fire students (potentially after earning an Associate's degree). College is a privilege and not a right. If after reasonable effort to correct performance in higher level/major classes, the professor can choose to boot the kid's ass out, with a prorated refund of course. There will have to be an effective academic counseling department established to determine the root cause of the shitty student performance and work to correct it. Bottom line, college isn't for everybody.

5. Professors get a raise! Yay! And they get merit based raises! Just like in the real world!

6. More financial assistance for poor people! One idea: partner with local businesses that are looking for bright young people and tie financial aid into internships and job offers. Have industry foot some of the bill for talent and education; think of it as backwards-facing tuition reimbursement.

I don't know much about the economics of running a college, but I know common sense often times makes for a pretty goddamn good starting point. Also, actually valuing people seems to be a pretty sweet way to do things.