Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Visiting Expert

At my college, as at many others, we have a routine cycle of program reviews. Each degree program has to bring in an outside expert in its own field every few years to evaluate our offerings to make sure that we’re up to snuff.

Yesterday we had one of those for a smallish program that’s relatively technology-intensive. The guy was from a private research university where, judging by his comments, the faucets pour money.

It was disheartening. For over an hour (at lunch), the expert opined on how a few hundred thousand here would help, and a few hundred thousand there would help, and how we’re really only a few million away from really having a quality program. Of course, we’d have to commit to keeping that funding level going indefinitely, given the rate of technological change in the program, unless we’re knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who don’t care about the students.

I hate conversations like that.

Part of the tragedy of administration is that, by definition, the closer you get to actual power, the farther afield from your area of scholarly expertise you get. I don’t know enough about this particular area to know how much of what he said was true, and of course the folk on campus in that area are always ready to argue for more. There’s no such thing as a disinterested expert.

Of course, by virtue of his role, he was allowed to call for millions for a single area, without having to address just where, exactly, those millions would come from. So he gets to climb on the high horse and preach about Excellence and Virtue and the evils of administration, while I try not to choke on my salad at the figures he spews.

After the lunch, I had a brief chat with the chair of the relevant department. When he asked my impressions, I asked which programs he thought I should eliminate to pay for his wish list. The Expert didn’t see fit to mention any.

I’m not naive enough to take his suggestions literally, but in a way, that’s the most depressing part. The whole point of bringing in experts is to get the truth; if they’d rather play political games and build castles in the air, then it’s not clear to me why we should bring them in at all. I have plenty of able practicioners of office politics on campus. There’s no need to import them.

A statement I’ve never heard, in my six years of deaning: “This program has more money (or resources, or faculty) than it can handle. I recommend reallocating some to an area of greater need.” Never heard that. Not a single time.

When the mission of a college is as diffuse as ours (the word ‘comprehensive’ gets thrown around a lot), it’s hard to measure one claim against another. In a perfect world, I’d have no problem throwing state-of-the-art equipment at every program. Motivated students would appear from the woodwork, working closely with self-starting faculty on a crowded-yet-roomy campus with both rapid growth and plenty of free parking. But that’s just not reality.

Since we lack consistent, objective, measurable criteria for success, we rely instead on (self-interested) departmental pleading, buttressed by the occasional department-selected Visiting Expert. I base judgments on what I know, what little I can measure, my guesstimate of the likelihood of any given grant program surviving any given year, and a fairly steep discount for rhetoric. It’s more than nothing, but it’s less than enough.

The Expert ate well and went home. I’ll receive his report in a few days. I’ll get called on the carpet by the VP to explain why the material needs he identified exist. And I’ll be told to reduce next year’s allocations some more. To suggest connecting the dots would be bad form.

Maybe it’s not too late to chuck it all and start a band. I still think Johnny and the Postdocs would be a great name. We could do all academic-themed lyrics: “(I Want To) Mentor You All Night Long,” “One Postdoc, One Diss, One-Year,” “(Let’s Do It) MLA-Style,” “Shake Your Endnotes,” “(I Got Some) Hard Data,” “It’s Hard Out Here For a Dean.”

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