Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Identity Crisis . . . response to a response

Stanley Fish wrote an intriguing little blog entry the other day in the New York Times. The topic is the academic credentials (actually the utter lack thereof) of Bruce Benson, the newly appointed president of the University of Colorado. Fish lists many of Benson's titles and pursuits but suffice it to say he's a businessman and republican operative whose academic career topped out at a BA. Faculty and students were understandably annoyed. Fish goes on to explore some interesting issues but more on that later. The article did not go unnoticed in Wisconsin.

Yesterday, on Wisopinion, Tom Still pondered the possible benefits of replacing UW - Madison's outgoing chancellor, John Wiley, with someone from the business community. The obvious reason for hiring a businessperson to lead the university is money. The legislature has made a sport of grumbling about "waste" in the university. Perhaps someone with a little more managerial acumen could curry more legislative favor come budget time. A rapport with the type of person who might donate large sums to the cause would also come more naturally to someone coming from the business community. Still makes a well-argued point that the regents might want to consider someone outside of academia but I think there are few holes. First, putting a businessperson in charge of the university doesn't necessarily mean more money. Second, money isn't really supposed to be the point anyway.

The UW - Madison has a two-billion-dollar annual budget. Currently, the state provides around 19%. State support for higher education in Wisconsin, like most other states, has been falling precipitously. That being said, it's a little naive to think that a change of management on Bascom Hill would convince the legislature to loosen the purse strings. Even assuming mismanagement is a large problem at the university (it's not), one wonders how, precisely, the legislature thinks that massive funding cuts provide a remedy. If they were truly interested in eliminating waste, they'd address it directly. As it is, the perception of waste is simply an excuse to take more public money away from higher education and spend it on things that actually fund legislator's campaigns like contracts and tax-breaks for well-connected cronies. It also helps to fill budget holes created by the legislature's own terrible mismangement. If the University of Wisconsin is to get more state assistance, the shakeup has to happen on the other end of State Street.

In terms of fundraising, the UW foundation's coffers are filled with several billion reasons to think that John Wiley, an academic, was about as effective a fundraiser as the university could've hoped for. Within that bonanza lies the problem with focusing on money. As state funding has been replaced with research dollars and private donations, the university has undergone a transformation. As it chases dollars to keep the lights on and keep the state's economy afloat, those parts of the institution that don't attract their own funding, be it through research dollars, financially successful alumni, or special state initiatives, wither. The arts, humanities and a good portion of the core curriculum are in real trouble in a lot of public universities and UW - Madison is a sad follower of that trend.

When the University of Wisconsin was founded it wasn't dollar signs that drove the state's commitment, it was education. Since its earliest days, Wisconsin has been a pioneer in public education because the state's founders realized that an educated populace is vital to a healthy democracy. A thorough grounding in history, culture and philosophy may not help bring home the bacon but they certainly help someone who holds a vote in the most powerful country in the world understand that world a lot better.

The next chancellor of the UW - Madison isn't just going to have make sure the university remains the state's premier economic engine He or she is going to have make some serious decisions about whether or not it remains the state's premier educational institution. If the UW is to be more than a glorified technical institution, resources need to get to the programs that most need them as well as the programs that most attract them. These issues are not invisible to business people but thinking about them isn't really necessary (in fact it can be antithetical) to keeping the shareholders happy.

So now we return to Stanley Fish, whose actual point was that there are people who have been successful both in the world of business and academia; so why choose someone with no academic credentials? Without money, an academic institution can't survive. Without academics, it can't exist.

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