Wednesday, October 03, 2007

An Open Letter to Mayor Richard M. Daley

Dear Mayor Daley,

I've seen some idiotic pronouncements over the years. “The insurgency is in its last throes,” “The Segway will change everything,” “Ladies and Gentlemen – Britney Spears!” Among the consolations of middle age is the realization that the worst-laid plans of mice and men at least occasionally go astray.

Still, you've really outdone yourself. Even a jaded academic like myself stands awestruck.

According to this article in the Chicago Sun-Times, you've decided to address head-on the real reason for tuition inflation at colleges and universities:

They should cut half the courses. It would cut down the cost tremendously. What are the basic courses that you need in college? Cut some of the unnecessary courses out...”

Of course! That's the problem! Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice the obvious.

For example, twenty years ago, tuition/room/board at my alma mater was $20,000 a year. Now it's almost $50,000 a year. How do we explain this rapid increase? Clearly, the shift from “four years to graduate” to “four years to graduate” is to blame.

Silly us. We've been spending all this time and energy trying to explain variables by looking at things that vary – you know, like declining levels of public support for public colleges, or increased costs for health insurance and HVAC, or the need to keep up with current technology in the fields we teach. You've taken the opposite tack – explain drastic change by looking at things that haven't changed at all. It's almost Zen in its simplicity.

I'll tell you what. Why don't you drop by and explain to my faculty senate just exactly which courses are unnecessary? Surely, a man of your high office wouldn't pop off like that without knowing specifics. Just off the top of my head, take English. Most of our students are already fluent! Obviously, this is dreadful waste. Besides, who really needs communication skills? After all, it's not like we have a service economy or any such thing.

Or maybe it's the expensive high-tech stuff you have in mind. Who needs it? Let the Japanese own the tech sector; they're better at it anyway! After all, if students graduate with less debt, they won't need good-paying jobs in the first place. It's the circle of life.

Maybe we could just get rid of all those business majors. Let the kids learn on the job! Who needs “accountants,” anyway? It's only money. Besides, Worldcom had accountants, and look what happened to them! Besides, if the kids won't be qualified for good-paying jobs, they won't have to worry their silly little heads about 401(k)'s or returns on investment. Why burden them with information they won't need?

And don't even get me started on Nursing programs! At the rate at which health insurance is hollowing out and leaving most Americans utterly unprotected even with insurance, soon most people won't be able to afford medical care anyway. Why prepare students for a profession on the way out? Better to create useful, short-term certification programs in, say, grief counseling.

Mayor Daley, I stand in awe of your self-confidence. Truly, it takes what we, in a less enlightened time, used to call balls of steel to spout such verbal antimatter around journalists, some of whom actually write down what you say. Of course, about half of what you say is probably unnecessary. If you like, I'd be happy to tell you which half.


Dean Dad