Visions for the Future of the University of Illinois
Peter Fritzsche, "Beyond Mismanagement"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism

On the left is a photograph of the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

[On March 11, the Unit for Criticism and the IPRH hosted a panel on "Visions for the Future of the University of Illinois" featuring presentations by Hadi Esfahani, Peter Fritzsche, Feisal Mohamed, Lisa Rosenthal, Alexander Scheeline, and Ruth Watkins. Below are excerpts from Professor Fritzsche's contribution.]

Written by Peter Fritzsche (History)

My perspective is from the core campus and the humanities. It is important to underscore that the resources are here, the quality of faculty and research is unimpeachable, but these resources have been mismanaged so that the remarkable enthusiasm for Illinois and at Illinois nurtured in the 1990s is in jeopardy. There is obviously a huge money problem, but there is also a problem of what I think of as “readership” that hampers “leadership,”

The mismanagement has come in the form of a lack of recognition of core campus strengths. Overall, the humanities and social sciences are not recognized on this campus; the books and arguments of the faculty are not profiled and their role in the production of new knowledge is not widely understood by recent campus administrators.

The campus has huge resources in international studies, in the area studies centers, in our Title VI investments. These strengths add up to nationally and internationally recognized excellence which is woefully neglected by the campus, imperiling future federal investments.

The humanities and social sciences, which often play with big ideas about the origins of violence, the nature of belief, and the ramifications of genre can help the university make its arguments about excellence. It is extraordinary that these fields are not mobilized to represent the university in a more sustained manner—especially as we make our case to the state during a time of budgetary shortfalls.

There are not sufficient resources available to sustain grass-roots faculty initiatives. The Research Board is great and I am delighted that its funding has not been cut. This is the single most important program and it is a great credit to the University of Illinois not simply to fund the Research Board but to reap the benefits of the research it supports. However, at this point, after being “taxed,” many departments have no money to partner with faculty to provide intellectual programming for our students and colleagues. No ability to invite disciplinary visitors and maintain disciplinary academic programming. Cross-disciplinary initiatives are so underfunded so that only particular top-down initiatives can be put on. IPRH and the Unit for Criticism lack the funding to link up with faculty ideas that trickle up. This jeopardizes the academic environment at the University. Both units need more adequate resources to sustain more grass-roots programming.

Faculty excellence in teaching and research is not sufficiently rewarded through the low-cost expansion of teaching awards and teaching releases. Moreover, the cost of recognizing and showcasing faculty accomplishments on websites, university publicity, and university presentations of itself comes at no cost whatsoever, but failure to do so sends a dispiriting message to the humanities and social sciences.

The crucial transmission of knowledge to our students is imperiled by a drive toward economies of scale so that the time-tested model of teaching assistant sections in large lower-division courses–the model in history since the 1890s
is being de-legitimated by ill-considered initiatives in distance learning and by cost-cutting efforts to replace TAs with graders.

Recognition of excellence and research capacities are mocked by strange top-down initiatives such as Stewarding Excellence at Illinois which has all the signs of being completely tone-deaf to what really happens on campus, and the persistent drumbeat of IT and digital humanities as the next big thing. It is not. Recognition of excellence is also mocked by the cronyism that marred the chancellor’s office until this fall. And finally recognition of excellence is mocked by a fascination with what we don’t do and a disregard for what we do do, indeed by an actual disdain for “strength,” which, from my vantage point, characterized the provost’s office until recently.

What do the humanities do? They critically evaluate the cornerstones of the ways in which we understand the world. Why were people slaughtering each other in Yugoslavia less than twenty years ago? Was it economic hardship, religious feuds, memories of violence and victimization? Were the reasons contingent or structural, sticky or elastic? The answers to these questions were pertinent to the conduct of American foreign policy, which initially wrote off the violence as ancient and thus intractable.

The humanities evaluate just this sort of proposition through local ethnography and historical research and discourse and symbolic analysis. Humanities teachers then transmit questions to their students who have to figure out what is going on without recourse to the passive tense or the cliched phrase or the unsubstantiated argument about “human nature” or “instinct.” To do this evaluation, students need to read books, discuss them around seminar tables on which they have pulled out their books and can take notes–I have never taught a regular undergraduate seminar around a seminar table in my 23 years at UIUC, Professors then mark up the assigned essays and return them to the students who will try again in order to hone critical thinking. This IT is intellectual, not informational.

Concrete suggestions:

*more seminar rooms

*more TA rather than grader-supported classes and an emphasis on thought and method rather than information.

*the university has hired great faculty; resources are needed to support the faculty that are here, a problem identified long ago by Jesse Delia

*more recognition of the humanities and social sciences in the ways and means the university represents itself to itself, to students, to trustees. U of I faculty should be celebrated and enlisted more.

*more recognition of the demonstrable excellence in the humanities and the social sciences

*there need to be basic minimum fiscal resources in the departments (the real-existing disciplines) to sustain modest programming. These minimums should be immunized from college and campus taxation. Otherwise, graduate education grinds to a halt.

*more resources for cross-disciplinary initiatives specifically designed to allow faculty ideas to trickle up. It is great when the Unit organizes a conference; these initiatives need to be augmented by grass-roots ideas that the Unit and IPRH are in a position to consider funding.

*more effort on the part of cross-disciplinary initiatives to utilize and mobilize faculty strengths.

This is where faculty can do more: since the campus and departments are so big, we need to design byways to collide with each other more; we ignore each other too much. English, History, Anthropology etc. should be talking to each other more, and we need to fashion structures to make this interaction possible.

*why not provide more teaching awards to an excellent teaching faculty

*there should be a less parsimonious attitude toward teaching releases, which are good investments.

*there should be altogether less talk about IT to facilitate these goals, I recommend:

*more representation of core campus disciplines in search committees

*more faculty representation in the dean’s office

*a push to select insider candidates for president, chancellor, provost, IPS, and deans to restore political legitimacy on campus, promote recognition, and insure longer, more committed tenures on the part of senior administrators, who should be obligated to maintain at least one undergraduate class each year.

In my view, the tools are there, they need to be sharpened, not reinvented; the traditions of faculty co-management are there, they need to be revived; the excellence is at hand, it needs to be recognized, cherished, and supported The future is in the past. We don’t have to invent excellence, but to recognize and sustain it.


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Anonymous said...

These are great ideas. But some people I guess will say that it's impossible to think this way right now because of the "huge money problems." These ideas aren't being presented as money savers or revenue producers. Just as good things that we used to do and could still do and could do even better. But could they also be money savers or revenue producers?

I can't agree more though about more faculty input in these decisions.

John Randolph said...

@Anonymous: I'm not sure the teaching around the table model has ever been shown to be 1) unsustainable; 2) a money-loser; or 3) a 'huge money problem,' in itself. It's true that teaching at a public university has historically required subsidies (once 12:1,now down to 1.1 to 1, state to tuition, lamentably) but I don't think there's a reason to think that the future is so bad this basic, lean but powerful, human, and transformative activity is no longer doable. If nothing else, it returns cash that then is used (routinely) to fund less flexible costs, and in this sense has a financial value beyond mere dollar count. That and we're kind of like into teaching and stuff.

I think there's also a basic, germane point that needs to be made, namely, we got caught long on a previous round of strategic investments. That is, the things we thought would be clear money makers and revenue builders turned out to be bad bets. Obviously, there's the infamous example of Global Campus. But one factoid from the Sustaining Excellence website is that 16 research-intensive buildings on campus use 41% of our energy costs (!) in ways that seem resistant to economy, because the various experiments can't be turned off (!!). And we all know that rocketing energy costs have devastated the budget recently. The list could go on.

Now, I believe we need to take gambles, and I believe we need to do big research, of the kind that can't be turned off. But we also need to be careful not to allow the quest for the big dollar to fool us into thinking that only the noisy, the big, and the new are sustainable, and the past was wasteful. At least as a hypothesis, one could say that our ambitions to grow our influence and revenue are a big structural reason for our current budget crisis (beneath the surface of the state and global financial meltdowns).

Getting greedy was part of the problem, pretty much everywhere. I would hope our attempts to improve revenues will be rooted in smaller, surer bets. We are, after all, not a corporation, but a public trust.

Anonymous said...

Yes, John. I didn't mean that what Peter Fritzsche was describing was not affordable. What I meant was that the people who will be making these decisions are asking that recommendations come as cost saving or money making methods.

You are right about needing to be ambitious in a strategic way. We should do that. But who is "we" anyway? I'd like for you or Peter Fritzsche do be helping to make these decisions. I don't know that you will or can. That seems like a big part of the problem.

John Randolph said...

I guess the basic answer to your original question, whose hooks I now understand better (thanks and apologies!), is that we begin our monetary argument by making the pitch I just made. We do make money of a kind that is quite useful via the old strategies; given a freer hand and more basic support we could do more efficiently; and these time tested (as Peter notes) strategies need to be protected in any new portfolio. The cash crisis didn't occur because the teaching mission failed. The cash crisis has occurred (it seems) due to 1) state problems; 2) national problems; 3) strategic overreach. We shouldn't self identify our core contribution as the main problem, when it hasn't been shown that it is.

Now, I happen to think that this is understood, at least in outline, throughout the university. Richard Wheeler posted recently on the subject of cross-subsidization on the Stewarding Excellence site, and there he argues that financial diversity (as in cultivating different kinds of money making) is crucial to the university's health. This, it seems to me, is a place where we can make a case.

As for what I'm doing, I'm on sabbatical and the only real committee work I'm doing is helping REEEC with its grants and helping the library work out the IAS Library model. But I've written letters to Robin Kaler, Richard Wheeler, and others on the subject of how we might think strategically about the budget, and I think it never hurts for tenured faculty to speak directly and politely, without waiting for a committee assignment.

If and when I end up exiled to Siberia for such activity, I'll let you know. Probably would write a better book if that did happen!

Here's a link to Wheeler's post:

PPS: I always want to add that OF COURSE monetary arguments need to be made hand in hand with MORAL ones: teaching and research are what the university was founded for, and should not be held to purely fiduciary standards. If we really wanted to make money we should have founded Starbucks. The question is how to make enough money, to do what we want to do.

Unit for Criticism said...

Hey John and Anonymous, thanks for these great comments. John, fwiw, I think you won't end up in Siberia for writing letters to our administration ;) And I'm reasonably sure that I won't go there either for editing this series of posts on Kritik!

It's great that Dick Wheeler has written at length on the Stewarding site and recommend that others check it out (see J’s link above). Of course, the hard question is how to negotiate between different demands given the various funding streams which are laid out there. I share your sense, John, that the proposals Peter F. has laid out can make sense economically as well as pedagogically.

I'm also glad that you and others are writing letters just as I’m grateful to the colleagues working hard on the strategy committees at college and campus levels. Likewise, faculty senators are providing important input.
Still, at the risk of repeating comments I made in response to an earlier post on Kritik, I'd like to add that if most of us belonged to the Campus Faculty Association (as an increasing number of us does), we would have at our disposal a democratically organized body to facilitate our speaking _to_ each other as well as speaking together as a collectivity as voices.

Letter-writing is important but 1) it's not especially dialogical (colleagues don't get to read each other's letters and letter-writers don't necessarily hear back from those they've addressed), and 2) it doesn't help us to identify, and articulate the goals and visions which we have in common.

I think that discussions among faculty (as well as between faculty and the administration) are v. important right now. So I worry about two kinds of assumptions that I hear from time to time which seem to militate against faculty discussion. The first is the assumption that if faculty were broadly included in discussions about budget cuts the result would be divisions along disciplinary and departmental lines (as faculty in specific areas rushed to protect their own interests). Now I don't deny that the problem might arise but it doesn't seem to me to be obviated by centralizing decision-making. In fact, the faculty I know who are on strategy committees worry that they can't represent the perspectives of colleagues in other fields and disciplines--even sometimes within their own departments. It makes me wonder what kinds of things we can do to spur communication among ourselves. In particular how could we arrange for discussions _among the faculty_ with regard to specific budgetary proposals, challenges, and policies that are being considered?

I don't suggest that if every faculty member belonged to the CFA that such discussion would instantaneously materialize. But a faculty-led group like the CFA could serve as a mechanism promoting discussion and diffusing information (something neither the Faculty Senate nor the strategy committees currently do). In other words, a faculty union can do more than provide a vehicle for collective bargaining (important though that goal is). It can also provide a vehicle for collective discussion and decision-making--something we lack as a faculty and which contributes to the weakness of shared governance on our campus. (LG - comment cont'd).

Unit for Criticism said...

This brings me to my second worry. I get the sense that some faculty feel that the administration is opposed to the growth of the CFA and that they dread the establishment of a faculty union. But do we actually know that that's true? I've never heard anyone say it. (Certainly several EOs are members of the CFA and this doesn't seem to have made them in any way less effective.)

I have read of campuses with faculty unions which have done relatively well in maintaining state support during periods of financial crisis. At the very least a faculty union can help administrators to assert the importance of state support. I think some simply assume that the relation between the administration and a faculty union would need be adversarial. I don't agree. At any rate, I'm more optimistic than that. (LG)

John Randolph said...

A propos of cross subsidization, there was this in the Chronicle, a nice summary of certain concepts:

(It's locked, but log in through our library to get the free copy, if you're not a subscriber).

I agree about the need for forums to talk about the implication of this complex topic!

Screaming children, gotta run.

Lauren said...

Thanks, John. That is a great piece and one of a number of really good ones the Chronicle has published of late on the humanities. I hope by now the children have settled ;)