Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For Show

I did a double-take when I saw this piece in the Chronicle. Apparently, the University of Georgia is dealing with budget cuts by reducing faculty travel funds. My first response was, why is this news? But then I saw the punchline: not only are they reducing what they'll pay for faculty to travel, they're actually withholding permission for faculty to travel with their own money.

In response to the obvious question of why they'd care what faculty did with their own money, the provost, one Arnett Mace, responded:

“Some people argue that there is no cost to the university...but the person is not here conducting scholarly work or teaching.”

Apparently, it's impossible to conduct scholarly work outside the office, or to teach online. And exactly who they'll pay to conduct bed checks on the weekends is left for the reader to ponder.

(I can see the scenario now. A dean confronts a professor:

Dean: My sources tell me you weren't home on Saturday night. You weren't at a conference, were you?

Prof: No, I went straight from the rave to the orgy.

Dean: Okay, then. Just don't go to any conferences.)

The move starts to make sense later in the article, when the university's President is quoted as saying that “what we do in this climate gets looked at, and perceptions matter.”

Now we're getting somewhere.

Although it's a delicate subject, and feelings on both sides run high when it's mentioned, the fact of the matter is that public higher education exists at the pleasure of a public that really doesn't understand how it works. Some policies and practices that strike seasoned practitioners as silly have their roots in efforts to prevent inflammatory headlines.

Office hours are an easy example. I've seen (cough) colleges require faculty to be physically on campus four days a week, even if they only teach for three. The idea is that if the press gets wind of a non-trivial number of professors only showing up for work three days a week for full pay, it'll whip up a scandal, and the college will pay the price in reduced political support. Which would happen.

The press periodically gets its knickers in a twist over released time, or travel, or summers, or empty classrooms on Fridays (unless it's to save gas money), or tenure, or esoteric research, or controversial research, or tuition. Usually the stories are grounded in anecdotes about a few outliers – some of which are genuinely objectionable, some of which really aren't – but which imply a much more generalized pattern of abuse. These stories do a great deal of political damage, both individually and over time.

One of the jobs of administration is to find that sweet spot where 'allowing the place to function' and 'keeping the public reasonably happy' overlap. (In some places, that sweet spot is pronounced “football.”) When times are good, that overlap is large, and there's still plenty of room to move. When things get ugly, that overlap shrinks, and some cherished prerogatives get some cold, hard looks. That's when a certain amount of defensive Dilbert-ism creeps in.

I'm not defending Georgia's action, which strikes me as memorably stupid. But while it's certainly absurd, it's not completely random. It's a misfire, but I can see where they were aiming. The public sees 'travel' and thinks 'pleasure junket on my tax dollars.' One florid anecdote about a particularly overentitled professor in a tropical clime, and the university could lose millions. I get that.

The trick is in both acknowledging the reality of the danger, and in addressing it in ways that don't do violence to the underlying mission. UGA gets full credit for the former, but a zero for the latter.