Missouri State University
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Communication from the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters

Selling ourselves short (or at least briefly)

Mean Joe Green Coke commercial stillLast Friday, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story about a challenge to top advertising agencies from Harper’s Magazine to create a Super Bowl commercial for the federal government.  It’s all fun and games when you’re selling beer, cars and corn chips, isn’t it?  And I’m pretty sure $3 million for a 30 second ad wouldn’t pass muster with the House Appropriations Committee.  (During yesterday’s game my fifth-grade son commented more than once, “They paid $6 million a minute for that?!“)

Companies pay big money for Super Bowl ads, so we expect them to be great.  It’s too big a cost, and too great an opportunity, to waste.  That NPR story got me thinking – what would a Super Bowl commercial for higher education look like?  Would it be as daunting a challenge as an ad for Uncle Sam?  How would we project our “brand” if given this huge audience?

There are various stock approaches to SB commercials, as even the most casual observer will note.  There’s funny – funny “cute” as in this year’s Darth Vader VW commercial, as well as funny “charming” like Coca Cola’s “Border Crossing”, and even funny “not funny because it was in really bad taste” (see any of yesterday’s three Groupon commercials).  There’s inspirational, such as Eminem’s Chrysler ad.  Sophomoric is a popular choice – see pretty much any Dorito’s ad.

Experts say that the best ads tell stories with a beginning, middle and end.  The narratives might be funny, touching, dramatic, or silly, but they draw us in and make us want to know how what will happen next.

What 30-second stories would we tell?

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Public affairs learning outcomes I’d like to see

Like many others (at least I hope there are many others) I have been disappointed (and at times just plain bored) with what I have seen in the media following the January 8th shooting tragedy in Tucson.  Was Sarah Palin’s “target” map to blame? Was the cheering and applause at the memorial service inappropriate and partisan?  Was the gunman prodded by violent imagery in political rhetoric?  I’m not sure which hit the airwaves first, accusations that the opposing side was to blame for the tragedy, or accusations that the other side’s accusations were further evidence of that side’s bias, malice, ignorance, etc.

Universities aim to educate our students for the “real world,” and certainly this incident is a real world event.  I have been thinking about how I would hope our students and graduates would respond, imagining those responses as at least indirect measures of what they had learned here and how they had developed a perspective informed by our public affairs mission.  I would be pleased to see any or all of these reactions, just as a few examples.  I hope that our students would:

  • Have empathy for the victims and their families as their first and enduring response. There is plenty to argue about here – political rhetoric, gun laws, mental illness, capital punishment – but none of these trump the tragedy and sadness of senseless and needless violence perpetrated on so many innocent people.
  • Appreciate the broader historical context in which this tragedy occurred. This is not the first assassination of a political figure.  It is not the first shooting rampage by what probably was a mentally ill person.  These are not the first times when political rhetoric has taken on violent tones.   The meaning of events like this shooting can be distorted and exaggerated by interpreting it in a historical vacuum.
  • Not be overanxious for explanations and not be satisfied with the explanations so quickly and glibly offered in the first 24 hour news cycle, or even in the first 24 days.  We are conditioned to expect answers, not questions or uncertainty, from the media and public figures.
  • Wonder whether we should be more concerned with the treatment of mental illness than the tone of political rhetoric. Whatever the effects political war metaphors may have, surely how well society deals with our mentally ill has at least as many serious implications.
  • Seek out a piece of music, a poem, a painting, or some other work of art as a source of solace, rather than turn to simplistic explanations to soothe our anger, sadness and fear.
  • Be interested to know that in 2010 there were more than 50 homicides committed in the city of Tucson. That’s a typical year according to the local ABC affiliate there.  The record was 74 in 2008.

I wonder what the past week would have been like if we had seen more of these kinds of responses on CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and The Today Show.

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The Best Jobs in America

A new Money magazine survey purports to reveal the “Best Jobs in America.”  Based on a survey of 40,000 workers, the survey ranks the Top 100 jobs according to factors such as pay, job growth, and quality of life.  Aside from the puzzling fact that neither “university professor” nor “college dean” appear on the list — which I can only attribute to a sampling method that did not include the education sector — the report surely gives we academics plenty to chew on.

More than a quarter of the top 100 jobs — based on median income and projected growth — are in health care, and another 25% are in the information technology, dwarfing all other sectors.  The top seven jobs in terms of median pay all are in health care.  If we consider the reality that students rate “being well-off financially” as a very important objective (78% according to one recent UCLA survey) and that a higher percentage of students now than ever cite the prospect of getting a good job as a “very important” factor in choosing a college (from the same UCLA survey), the direction for higher education seems clear.  Certainly enrollment growths here at Missouri State, particularly in health professions, bear this out.

And yet, there is more to be learned from this survey of top jobs.  First, money and job security aren’t everything.  The highest percentages of employees who think their job “makes the world a better place” are in health fields, the top nine, in fact.  (Full disclosure: Only one health sector job is among the 10 rated as least stressful — optometrist.)  Second, the report also comments on what employers are looking for in applicants, and in even the most technical fields those qualifications extend far beyond technical expertise.  A few examples from among the top 10 “booming jobs“:

  • Biomedical Engineer: “The people who have stood out are the people who are motivated to help patients … There are candidates who have looked for opportunities to volunteer in hospitals or developing parts of the world … That kind of experience builds your credibility and it builds your skills more than something you can read in a book.”
  • Physician Assistant: “We’re looking for people with good interpersonal skills because they’ll be taking care of sick people.”
  • Software Architect: “More than 50% of our employees are also musicians.  One of our [interview] questions is ‘What is the band you hate the most?'”
  • Environmental Engineer: “‘We want people with personalities.  Someone who isn’t a total nerd.’  A second language, extracurriculars and especially a good batting average will all help.  ‘We just hired someone with great field experience and he also played minor league ball.'”
  • Environmental Health & Safety Specialist: “For our company, we’re looking more at soft skills, like leadership and emotional intelligence.”
  • Occupational Therapist: “Erin Wright, senior recruiter for Lakeland HealthCare, pays just as much attention to a job candidate’s social cues as she does their resume.”
  • Construction Estimator: “‘Solid leadership and integrity goes a long way.’  As does out-of-the-box thinking, since there are great opportunities to make a positive impact on the environment, like building a bridge in a way that does not disturb the surrounding wetlands.”

To those who worry that the increasing emphasis on and need for professional training in universities will crowd out the traditional liberal arts, I say the evidence suggests just the opposite.  Wired magazine recently published the “7 Essential Skills You Didn’t Learn in College,” or what the authors cleverly nickname, “the neoliberal arts.”  A quick rundown of the list and “what you’ll learn”:

  • Statistical Literacy: “How to parse polls, play the odds, and embrace uncertainty.”
  • Post-state Diplomacy: “How to practice statecraft without states.”
  • Remix Culture: “How to analyze — and create — artworks made out of other artworks.”
  • Applied Cognition: “How the mind works and how you can make it work for you.”
  • Writing for New Forms: “How to adapt your message to multiple formats and audiences — human and machine.”
  • Waste Studies: “How to become a smarter consumer, investor, and conserver.”
  • Domestic Tech: “How to apply hard science and engineering to everyday life.”

The Association of American Colleges & Universities observes that, “once you get over the uber-hip format of the whole thing,” the “essential skills” Wired points to are actually pretty similar to the essential learning outcomes identified in AAC&U’s LEAP initiative and consistent with what national employer surveys show.  According to a 2009 AAC&U survey, employers want universities to place more emphasis on:

  • knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • intellectual and practical skills
  • personal and social responsibility
  • integrative and applied learning

In other words, it takes a university to raise an anesthesiologist.

Now, I still can’t figure out where all the teachers, artists, NGO workers, dancers, filmmakers, writers and social entrepreneurs figure into this Money survey.  By and large they didn’t hit the top 100 for anything, which I can only take to mean that they were too busy doing meaningful, creative, rewarding work to take time out to complete a survey.

post script: I just noticed in the CNNMoney.com archives that in the 2006 survey “college professor” ranked number two among the top jobs in America.  Hmmmm.

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Do You Do Well?

an·ger (noun)  a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire.

Anger seems to be everywhere these days.  Pick just about any national issue, from immigration to gay marriage to taxes, and nearly all the conversation you hear on the subject is angry.  Locally a couple of Branson businessmen have caused a stir with their “Voted Obama? Embarrassed Yet?” billboard.  I’m Voted Obama? Embarrassed Yet?not sure which of their comments staggers me more, that they erected the billboard “in the name of discourse, conversation, and old-fashioned debate,” or that they were “just surprised how upset people are” by it.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the Obama administration, but can expressing that unhappiness in this way do anything but evoke an angry response from those who disagree?

The proposed Islamic center, or “ground zero mosque,” is another issue that has generated “strong feelings of displeasure.”   The decision to build this center is protected by rights of religious expression and it is offensive to many people, but the debates and demonstrations have appeared to be much more about anger than about the very real issues underlying the controversy.

We might blame the media or politicians for fanning these flames, but I am more concerned lately with the anger that I see around me on a daily basis among co-workers, colleagues, and even family members.  It seems every day I talk to people who feel aggrieved, insulted, mistreated, unappreciated;and they are angry.  But the anger too seldom moves us to constructive action, and our anger seems directed too often at people rather than at behaviors or circumstances.

Of course, there are times when we should be angry and when we should struggle and fight against those things that make us angry.  In a recent NBC interview, for example, Brad Pitt said of the unnecessary deaths and destruction in New Orleans brought about by hurricane Katrina that, “I got angry.  I got really angry.”  That anger has moved him to work for reconstruction and recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward.  But not all anger is like that.

Jonah Awaits the Destruction of Ninevah

One of my favorite lines in literature comes from the story of Jonah in the Hebrew Scriptures.  After reluctantly warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction, the prophet Jonah becomes quite upset when they actually repent and are spared.  God then says to Jonah, as rendered in some translations, “Do you do well to be angry?”  Jonah thinks so, but God’s response implies otherwise.

I believe this is a question we must ask ourselves when this very natural emotion wells up within us.  Do we “do well” to be angry?  One meaning of the question can be is our anger justified.  But being “right” in our anger does not necessarily mean that we do well in giving in to that anger.

Where is our anger getting us?  What is our anger making of us?  Does our anger, resentment, indignation, or withdrawal result in anything about our situation improving?  Does our anger blind us to the need us to seek solutions with people who do not share our viewpoints?  Is our anger taking us anyplace that we want to go?

If I were to rewrite God’s line to Jonah, I might put it something like this:

“So, Jonah, how’s that anger thing working for you?”

Here’s an interesting postscript to Jonah’s story.  God actually asks the question twice.  The first time, it’s sort of rhetorical, because Jonah doesn’t answer.  Instead, he goes off by himself to stew and see if maybe Ninevah won’t still get what it has coming.  God makes a plant grow up to shade Jonah and that cheers him up, but then the plant dies and Jonah is madder than ever.  God then asks Jonah again, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?”  Jonah is bold enough to reply this time, saying — and I paraphrase — “You’re darned right I ‘do well’ to be angry!  I’m so angry, I don’t want to live anymore in a world that’s so against me!”  God’s response observes that Jonah’s passion is misplaced; if he was going to be angry about something, he should have been angry that a whole city was in danger of destruction.

I bet that really ticked Jonah off.

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What progress shall we promise?

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signHaving driven several hundred miles to attend a family reunion this past weekend, several of us were commiserating about the many highway construction projects that had slowed our trips.  The conversation turned to how many of these projects featured prominent signs pointing out they were funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  While the discussion offered to some an opportunity to criticize the federal goverment and caused all of us to wonder how much money was spent on the signs, afterward these observations led me to reflect on some issues facing us in higher education and at Missouri State specifically.

Obviously, those big signs were there to persuade drivers that the government was doing something useful in response to the recession.  If one thinks the ARRA was a good thing, the signs reinforce that positive judgment; those who question its wisdom view the signs as empty PR.  They remind me of a series of signs with which we in Springfield, MO are familiar.  For a number of years Springfield citizens have renewed a 1/4 cent sales tax to fund specific infrastructure projects, such as road improvments.  These projects, also, are always accompanied by large signs communicating “progress as promised.”  A key difference between these signs and the ARRA signs is that citizens actually voted to pay taxes for these specific improvements.

As a taxpayer supported enterprise, what kind of signs might a university post to show the public what we are doing?  I can imagine three sorts of signs:

  1. The “We Are Doing Something Constructive” sign.  Like the ARRA signs, we could simply tout that we are doing good things.  Aside from whether the ARRA was good policy, most would agree that better roads are good.  It’s hard to argue that education is a bad thing, too, and by and large the work we do in universities is constructive.  But this kind of sign tends just to reinforce what people already think of us, positive or negative.
  2. The “We Are Doing Something Constructive That You Wanted” sign.  Even better than the first kind of sign is when we can say, “Here is what we planned because we all said it was important and here is the progress we are making in completing those plans.”  For example, we are including diversity and global perspectives in our curriculum because society is changing, or, we are expanding our health professions programs because the state has a great need for health care providers.  This is good, but I think there is an even better, more necessary kind of sign.
  3. The “We Are Doing Something Constructive That You Wanted and Here Are the Outcomes We Hoped For” sign.  My daily commute takes me through only the second “diverging diamond” interchange in the United States (the first is also in Springfield).  Kudos to MODoT for finishing the construction on schedule, but as I re-learn how to drive through an intersection what I really want to know is, will this design be better than the old one?  The end results are supposed to be increased traffic flow, decreased congestion, and fewer accidents.  If those results are not realized, then none of us will be impressed with how well the construction was done. 

For many years now we have realized that inputs alone are an incomplete measure of accomplishment.  We don’t assign our students “A’s for effort” and we should not conclude that simply because we are working hard we are producing desired outcomes.  But we need to look even more closely at what are those desired outcomes.  When the decision was made to construct the diverging diamond interchange on the National Avenue/James River Expressway bridge, transportation officials already knew that the bridge was in need of repair or replacement.  They might have simply built a new bridge that looked just like the old one.  There was, however, an opportunity to consider carefully what was needed and to imagine what ends could be achieved if the bridge were reinvented.  Planners had to ask, What do we really need, and will simply building another good bridge like the old one meet those needs?

We should be asking ourselves the same questions as we take a hard look at our environment in higher education today.  The landscape is changing rapidly and we know the bridge needs to be repaired or replaced.  But the traffic demands are changing.  Even a new bridge, if built to the specifications of old needs, will not help us meet today’s goals.

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A Tale of Two Cities

There’s a type of values exploration exercise that involves telling a group of people a brief story in which characters’ behaviors contribute to certain bad outcomes and then asking the group to rank the characters with respect to how much blame each should be assigned.  The recent Lebron James saga has inspired me to write a new version of the story.

LeBron James
LeBron James

Once there was a professional basketball player — we’ll call him LBJ — who was considered the best player in the land.  (Not as great as Michael Jordan was, but that detail isn’t necessarily pertinent to this story.)  After playing for his hometown team for seven years, his contract allowed him the option of continuing to play for them or signing a new contract with another team.  Of course, many teams wanted to lure him to their cities.  After months of speculation by the press and fans, a national sports TV network agreed to give LBJ an hour-long, prime-time slot for his great “reveal.”  Following 60 minutes of “LBJ is the greatest player in the land,” LBJ announced he would be leaving his hometown team to play on a dream team in another city where he believed the chances of winning championships would be better.  Fans in the hometown called it the “worst day”of their lives, cried “betrayal!” and even burned his jersey in effigy. The hometown team owner called LBJ “cowardly” and accused him of having “quit” during a recent playoff series.  The flood of press coverage the next day was even heavier than it had been in the days leading up to LBJ’s announcement.


So, let’s break down who gets blame in this story:

LBJ: Great players change teams all the time and LBJ shouldn’t be blamed for taking what he thought was a better deal.  But what a classless, egomaniacal way to leave. 

The owner: Can you say “sour grapes”?  Lots of great players have failed to deliver championships.  You got seven years out of the league’s top player.  Make any money during those years?  Yeah, I thought so.  Your reaction almost makes LBJ look good in comparison … almost.

The hometown: If this is the worst day of your life, then you need to get one (a life, that is).

The press: When we were little and one of the kids jumped up and down yelling, “Look at me!  Look at me!” people said, “Ignore him, he’s just trying to get attention.”  You gave LBJ all the attention, elevated him to a status where he could actually demand even more attention, and now you’re criticizing him for having drawn all this attention.  Hmm.

The moral of the story?  Sports builds character, and apparently character is revealed in what you do when everyone is watching.

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Conversation as a learning outcome

Recently I finished reading Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know About Religion — and Doesn’t and I have begun reading his follow-up book, God is Not OneUnderlying both books is Prothero’s thesis that knowledge of the world’s major religions is necessary for effective citizenship.  Regardless of one’s own religious inclinations — or aversions– one’s understanding of history, culture, politics, even science is incomplete without an understanding of religion’s role, both positive and negative.

The subtitle of  God is Not One indicates that book’s major contention: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.  Prothero argues that attempts to harmonize the major religions as different paths all leading to the same end, or, as world religion scholar Huston Smith put it, roads climbing the same mountain from different beginning points at its base, are utopian at best and dangerous at worst.  Each religion, he says, identifies differently the fundamental problems facing humanity, e.g., sin in Christianity, suffering in Buddhism, as well as the solutions to those problems. 

God is Not One jacket cover
God is Not One jacket cover

The first chapter addresses Islam.  I have done a small amount of reading on Islam so I was familiar with some of the material but still felt I learned a good deal.  The next chapter describes Christianity, my “home” religion, as it were.  While Prothero (a professor of religious studies at Boston University) does his best to represent the diversity of Christian tradition and belief — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, pentecostal, Mormon, and so on — I repeatedly found myself thinking, “I’m a Christian and I wouldn’t describe myself that way,” and, “Boy, there is so much more to it than that.”  You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure.  My next thoughts were, “Hmm.  I wonder if different Muslim readers would have similar reactions to the preceding chapter,” and, “Would a Muslim reader have a good understanding of me as a Christian after reading the next chapter?”

General knowledge is a good and necessary starting point, but surely it is in the specific and personal that we must search for understanding.  As we continually reflect on the goals of a university education, I believe that one of those goals should be to prepare students to engage in significant conversations.  That requires knowledge — enough to know what one doesn’t know about the rest of the world; skill — the ability to listen, interpret and inquire as well as to express one’s own thoughts; and dispositions — such as protecting the dignity of others and the willingness to suspend one’s own beliefs to entertain those of another.

Perhaps we should require graduates to pass a different sort of oral exam, one that requires them to have a respectful, informed, open conversation with someone who is unlike them in significant ways.  That’s a learning outcome that could change the world.

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Windows of Opportunity

Concert ChoraleEarlier this month I had the good fortune to join the chorus in the music department’s production of Mendelssohn’s Elijah for the President’s Concert.  (I was the bass hiding in the back row faking his way through the last chorus that he never quite memorized.)  Conductor Dr. Guy Webb was gracious enough to invite me to participate when months before I mentioned having hidden in the chorus of this same oratorio back in college.  In addition to simply enjoying the experience, I came away reminded again of just how hard our students and faculty work to put on such great performances and of how very talented our students are.  In fact, the principal solo role was performed by graduating senior Joshua Markey, who more than held his own next to the other three professional soloists.

As an undergraduate I loved singing in my college’s concert choir, though I always felt a little out of my league.  It was a formative experience for me, largely due to the influence of our director, Dr. Arnold Epley, and I know that hundreds and hundreds of students can say the same thing about Dr. Webb and many other faculty mentors.  Once in addressing an audience of non-music students Dr. Epley used an analogy that has stuck with me.  He said that life is like riding on a conveyor belt while you work diligently at developing your craft, whatever that is.  Most of the time you are working without an audience, but every once in a while the conveyor belt passes in front of a window with people looking in and you have a brief opportunity to shine, perform, show what you can do.  You don’t know when these chances are going to come, so you have to be ready.  Then you go back to work.

I have thought about this analogy the past couple of weeks as I have seen many of our students being given opportunities to “perform.”  Senior BFA students have exhibited their work in art and design and performed in showcases and recitals.  Communication students have presented their research on relationships among communication practices and learning outcomes at a poster session in the Craig Hall lobby.  Electronic arts and media students have screened their works in the PSU Theatre.  Art history students curated an exhibit of Mesoamerican art for the library’s special collections.  These are just a few of the more visible opportunities our students have had to “shine” recently.  We could add to this list the hundreds of students who have performed internships, engaged in service learning projects, demonstrated their language proficiency in study away experiences, or otherwise had chances to show the world what they can do.

These windows of opportunity, to use Dr. Epley’s image, are critical to our students’ education and to their development as individuals, and they usually come because faculty have extended themselves well beyond the classroom and invested themselves in students in extraordinary ways.  I am continually amazed at the commitment of our faculty to their students.

Shakespeare was right about the world being a stage, but I don’t think there’s anything “merely” about being players.  When our cue comes we want to be ready and able to steal the show.  During those long periods of just plain hard work that no one seems to notice, we are sustained by the hope that our chances to perform will come.  Each performance, whether a star turn or a disappointing effort from which we can learn, builds our confidence and reminds us how rewarding the work itself is.

So, congratulations to all of our students who have shown us and the rest of the world what they’re capable of, and thank you to everyone who has pushed and encouraged and helped them to do so.

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Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

For the past few years as my daughter has been learning Spanish it has been fun occasionally to test my own rusty knowledge of the language.  Early on, when it was mostly vocabulary, I was surprised at how easily the words came back to me.  I think I was more impressed than she was, but since my ability to be helpful to her in math has been exhausted I cherish the small victories.

Nowadays her knowledge is more conversational, so sometimes we try to chat in Spanish.  I have found that I do marginally ok provided that we speak in the present tense.  As soon as I try to communicate something that I have done, am going to do, or might do in the future, I’m helpless.  My retention of Spanish verb conjugation apparently stops at the borders of the here and now.  A multilingual friend tried to comfort me by pointing out that as long as I knew the words for yesterday and tomorrow I could always make myself understood.  I suppose she’s right, still “Yesterday I go to the store” (“Ayer voy a la tienda”) sounds a bit inarticulate for someone with three degrees.

I believe many of us in higher education are experiencing a similar difficulty in talking about what we do in terms other than just the present.  We know that things are not as they used to be — Google the words “new normal higher education” and you’ll get over 4 million results — but it is hard to imagine what the future will look like, especially for public institutions.  A generation ago the ratio of public college expenses borne by state appropriations to those paid by students was 70% and 30% respectively; now those proportions are reversed.  National surveys show that the majority of families believe post-secondary education is critical for economic success, but about the same number believe it costs too much.

Amidst all this uncertainty we are tempted to look back on “the good old days,” but universities, especially universities like ours, have changed so much since then.  The old models don’t fit, and simply trying to recapture whatever it was about the past that felt so comfortable is like trying to talk about yesterday in the present tense.  Yet I, for one, feel stuck because I don’t have a comprehensible way of imagining and talking about the future, either.  Across the country, most of what I see in higher education is talk about being essentially what we already are but with less money.  That’s a little like saying of today’s breakfast, “Tomorrow I eat ham and eggs.”

Perhaps for right now the best we can do is slip “ayer” and “manana” into our sentences and try to make ourselves understood.  But eventually we are going to need an expanded grammar for talking about what used to be and what can be in terms other than the present tense.

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More or less, the questions are the same

Tonight’s Missouri Lottery PowerBall jackpot is $115 million.  With cuts to higher education appropriations looming, perhaps buying lottery tickets is now our best hope of getting more money from the state. 

lotteryI’ve never been much of a lottery player, though as I understand the rules you have to actually play to win.  Strangely, twice in the past two weeks I have found a losing lottery ticket tucked under the windshield wiper of my Ford in Lot 24.  I’ve tried not to read too much meaning into that gesture by an unknown passerby.

Purely as a spectator, though, I have always been drawn to those jackpot winners who, at least for the cameras anyway, vow to return to their jobs and not let the money turn their lives upside down.  People have studied what happens to lottery winners so I am sure there is empirical evidence to support or deny my theory, but I would predict that the happiest lottery winners, long term, are those whose priorities do not change much just because they suddenly have a pile of cash.  You will hear such people say things like, the first things they will do is pay off their mortgage or secure a college fund for their kids.  Sure, they’ll probably take a four-week trip to Aruba and buy a new flat screen TV, but the first things on their list are the same things that were on the top of their list when they were just cashing their regular monthly paycheck.

I once heard a consultant who works with nonprofit organizations say that sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an organization is for it to suddenly come into a lot of money.  A windfall can be a dangerous thing if the organization doesn’t already have its priorities established and a plan in place for what it would do with money if it came.

It is unlikely that the university is going to win the lottery or otherwise come into a lot of money; instead, we all are contemplating what budget cuts might mean to the institution and our respective corners of it.  But just like a family’s priorities should stand apart from what it can afford, the university needs to address what its core priorities are before we start making decisions based solely on what we think we can pay for.

Take that hypothetical lottery-winning family that I admire, for example.  With a regular middle-class income Mom and Dad had determined since before the kids were born that a college education was important.  Maybe they had the resources to start a college fund; maybe they were only able to insure that their kids went to an A+ program high school and did everything required to qualify for a two-year community college scholarship.  They set the priority, and then they matched their resources to that priority as best they could.  Then the big payday comes and suddenly they can pay in advance for full tuition at Harvard.  With only their middle-class income, maybe an Ivy League education was never something they could even try to budget for: the amount they are able to budget for college has now changed, but the place college held on their list of spending priorities did not.

When the university confronts our significant appropriations cuts, we need to have a keen sense of who we are and what sort of university we want to be.  That same sense of purpose and identity should drive difficult decisions about reductions just as it should drive more pleasant choices about where to allocate new resources when times improve.

Soon President Nietzel will be initiating a renewed long range planning process that necessarily will take budget realities into account.  All of us should be pushing for – and, with our participation, making – a process that requires us to answer these core questions about the identity and priorities of the university.  Until we have those kinds of answers, responses to budget cuts are likely to be haphazard and driven by self-preservation instincts at lower levels.

The questions we need to ask in the face of less money are the same questions we need to ask in the face of more money, and if we don’t have answers to those questions the money doesn’t matter all that much.

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