How the Papal example cannot save the University of Texas

In the name of the Father … I mean efficiency

The narrative presented by President Powers, “Smarter Systems for a Greater UT,” sounds too good to be true, in large part because it is.  It is premised on a contradiction which is all the more maddening because it is acknowledged, and then politely ignored.

The strategy developed for making the university work better, more efficiently, and still retain its excellence is “attrition.”  That this was the way that hundreds of thousands were sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s imperial ambitions in the last century, would be worth mentioning, except that the historical memory of our President seems to be limited to the obscure architectural accomplishments of the papacy.  Really, the pope managed to move an obelisk?  Are these the metaphors of innovation to which the university has been reduced?

You cannot have a strategic vision for a university, much less a war, on the basis of attrition.  It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the university spent $960,000 to develop its well-worked out plan for saving money that amounts to, well, doing nothing and then charging more for it.  This is strategic neglect masquerading as policy.

Let me give you an example.

Two years ago, the Center for Asian American Studies, an already tiny center, was cut by 25%, despite the fact that we were exceeding expectations in terms of our “efficiency.”  Every metric that the university developed demonstrated at the time that the Center was actually performing well.  That year we also lost a senior faculty member to another institution.  The university did not approve using those savings to hire a replacement faculty member.

Last year, we also lost a full-time staff person, who was then replaced by a part-time staff person, and two of our faculty members were denied tenure.  This year, that part-time staff person is going to have leave her job because it doesn’t provide her with dental coverage which she needs.  The university, we have been informed, will not be refilling her position.

The Center for Asian American Studies will be one more casualty that will prove to the university that its plan is working.  There will be no discussion of the work that the faculty here do, the students they serve, the projects they work on, the communities outside the university to which they connect us.  Will we even pause to ask who is winning this war?

This is what attrition amounts to.  It amounts to taking excellence and then sapping it of all of its strength.  It is only through the deployment of Orwellian rhetoric that passivity can present itself as ingenuity and intelligence.  This is business orthodoxy pretending to be reform.

Lest I forget, here’s the remaining bits of the plan: charge more for things that people need like food and parking, and pay people less for the work they already do.  Oh and then there is also last year’s decision to charge students more tuition.  This is exactly what it means to run the university like a business, and no amount of papal sanctification can turn this water into wine.  We’ve run out of creativity at the top and we are hoping for miracles.

The sad part is that this plan will work: there will be savings, there will be efficiencies.  But it will also mean real, human casualties.  Education will suffer, as will the services that students are offered.  It will also be more expensive to be a longhorn.  Jobs will simply vanish into the ether.  And we will make do with less.  But the emphasis in that sentence has to be on the word “less” and not on the term “make do.”  And by the way, do you want an education in which “making do” is supposed to sound like “halleluiah?”