A Business Person Questions the Dean’s Business-Like Approach

Milton Ezrati

Dean S. gave a tight presentation to the roomful of donors. Her problem was clear. The customers (students) were shifting their demands for college services from humanities and languages toward STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), as well as toward the more “quantitative” social sciences. The university simply did not have the funds available to beef up faculty and facilities in these preferred disciplines, and sadly (at least to her mind) it had too much faculty and facilities in the humanities, where demand was slackening. Worse still, faculty in the humanities and languages had tenure, preventing her from easily shedding them and using the funds elsewhere. Her long-term plan would encourage retirements in English, classics, languages, history, and other such disciplines and shift the funds away from those departments to the high-demand subjects.

While this business-like analysis sat squarely in that audience’s comfort zone, it seemed strange coming right after a presentation by the new subordinate dean for diversity. The “diversity dean” was new to the college’s administration and distinct from a similar person who oversaw diversity for the entire university. The new diversity dean’s presentation was anything but business-like. It emphasized, in therapeutic language, the presumptive needs of students, and how diversity—the consignation of these students into rigidly defined identity categories—especially served those needs. She described for us a number of elaborate (and expensive) initiatives. While foreign to our life experience, most of us by then were familiar with the conflation of educational goals with diversity imperatives. There were no questions.

The questions poured out when Dean S. followed and finished her very different presentation. Initially, they had a technical or rather financial tone. After all, her thinking ran along paths familiar to us. What would it cost to induce early retirement in tenured faculty? Were there ways to cut back on other staff or fill the need in high-demand disciplines less expensively? How many adjunct professors were involved? Could the staffing gap be filled by non-tenure track teaching staff? While she fielded these questions, I found myself coping with the vague sense that something was wrong. Unfamiliar as I was with the non-profit world, much less the administration of an academic institution, it took time for my objections to crystalize. Help came when another donor, a fellow economist, seemed to sense my concern. He leaned toward me and whispered: “Is this the role of a university?”

I took that remark on board and silently answered, “No!” The place is not here simply to satisfy consumer demands, like a Walmart or a Tiffany’s or a vocational school. The taxpayers support this and other universities for a broader purpose, as do donors in both public and private institutions. Colleges are here not just to train these kids to serve the economy and make money themselves. Universities and colleges also serve a public purpose by, among other things, preserving and expanding knowledge and insight in all areas. They are here to open students’ minds to this entire world of established knowledge and critical thinking skills. Because the roles of universities and colleges transcend narrower marketplace considerations, academia commands more respect and public support of all kinds, including financial, then do profit making institutions. If the colleges simply follow the demand curve, society has a legitimate reason to withdraw that support and respect. Indeed, if schools follow the lead of profit-makers, then perhaps society should treat them as it does profit-makers—chase demand and sink or swim according to how effectively you do that job.

Nor is it clear that Dean S’s approach would serve even the STEM-seeking students. Their demand reflects not just their personal choice but, especially these days, a heavy marketing campaign by both government and the media to emphasize STEM and kindred disciplines. President Obama never spoke of education without promoting the study of STEM subjects. Some of the students may pursue STEM as a civic duty quite aside from their preferences. Many may pursue it simply because they do not know their preferences yet, and STEM now is so thoroughly promoted. Others will see STEM studies as a way to secure a future in a world that they have been assured will reward that kind of education.

I know the feeling. I was in junior high school—middle school these days—when the Soviet Sputnik beat us into space and the nation responded by pushing engineering and science above all else. Many followed the call, some to successful careers. Others, at universities that offered something else, discovered greater passions in other disciplines. As it turned out, the successful American moon landing in 1969 began a series of cutbacks in government funding that led to severe layoffs among scientists and engineers in the 1970s and destroyed the careers of those who the authorities once assured would always have a place. Even if things turn out better for this latest crop of STEM seekers, one wonders what the dean will do when the powers that be leave off the promotion of STEM, as they almost certainly will. Presumably then, as demand slackens, the dean will need to trim faculty and facilities in the disciplines she had previously bloated, no doubt by encouraging the STEM faculty to seek early retirement.

Even in a strict business sense, it is not at all clear that the dean presented a sound plan. Her concentration on majors ignores the fact that some disciplines attract more students to elective courses than others. Art history and classics, for instance, often command great numbers of credit hours from non-majors who have an interest, certainly more than STEM does. Should not the enrichment these courses offer the students and those elective tuition dollars count? Perhaps the dean has her eyes fixed on federal money and that may force a consideration of majors. If that were the case, it would be a shame on two counts. It would deny the college rich course offerings and it would put the lie to any claims of student demand. On the contrary, it would suggest that the college was engineering demand to suit some top down pressure from another authority.

Then there is the broader diversity issue. On one side, a little less emphasis on diversity and inclusion initiatives might free up dollars needed to build up the high-demand disciplines. If diversity initiatives are deemed too important to suffer any cuts, then there is a diversity loss to consider by reorienting the college as the dean described. Under such an approach, the college might still have lots of people with different appearances and accents, but the campus would otherwise fill with lots of STEM, economics, psychology, and political science majors. The group might have different colors, ethnicities, sexual orientations, whatever, but its members would have very similar interests and ways of thinking. One wonders if the students might get more diversity from meeting those with other interests. I know that while studying economics and math, I benefited tremendously from the new and different perspective offered me by a random roommate who studied Greek and Latin. His presence in my life opened me up to the classics that, though I never learned Greek or Latin, have enriched my life tremendously. Had the college then followed a plan similar to the one the dean presented to us, my roommate would more likely have been studying subjects comparable to my own.

These stories are mine but the sentiments, I am pleased to say, are widespread among the donors. What I am not pleased to say is that the dean and the administration, far from responding to our objections and reservations, failed even to hear them, and certainly showed no sign of reconsidering their plans. As with so many other campuses and universities, donors are left with nothing but their checkbooks to make a point, and expressions there lack subtlety and are always misinterpreted.

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