Excellence Without Money!

The weather here in the Rocky Mountains is like the economy:  bottoming out and likely to remain in the deep freeze for the foreseeable future.  So after my face-freezing walk across the Baa Ram U. campus, I arrived at work this morning to a flooded department hallway and an office full of wet carpet.  (A colleague of mine 2 doors down got the worst of it–for the second time in two years, the pipes in the heating system in her office burst and flooded half the department.)  Luckily, our decaying, flooding, oddly dead-fly infested building was on a list of buildings to be renovated…before the stock market tanked this fall, and before all of the other harbingers of economic doom that followed in short order.  As the little gingerbread man in that Go Phone commercial says about another crumbling building, in the voice of Steve Buscemi, “I’d like people to stop eating my house…but that ain’t gonna happen.” 

So, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Roxie’s musings on the problems facing public colleges and universities, get thee to Roxie’s World right now to read Moose’s back-of-the-cereal-box history of trends in higher education over the past few decades and her super depression-proof plan for public institutions everywhere

For years, public institutions like Queer the Turtle U have been stuck between the rock and the hard place of declining levels of state support and mounting pressure to keep tuition affordable. Caught in that vise, schools have fought to do more with less while scrambling to catch up to private institutions in the game of fundraising. That strategy worked reasonably well when times were good and the bubbles in stocks or real estate had a lot people feeling rich. Now? The party’s over, public and private revenues have dried up, and schools are desperately trying to figure out how to cut costs without compromising the value of their brand (the ne plus ultra of higher ed under the consumer model).

Moose, who has a healthy respect for academic entrepreneurship, has a slogan for public institutions eager to prove that larger classes, smaller operating budgets, and reductions in advising and other forms of academic support are no threat whatsoever to the quality of education. She’s been using the slogan informally all over campus at Queer the Turtle U this fall, but it hasn’t been officially adopted yet, so, in the spirit of academic capitalism she has decided to auction it off here to one of my legions of loyal fans who works at some other cash-strapped public school. . . .  Are you ready?  Here is Moose’s slogan for hard times in higher ed:

Excellence Without Money

Hey, kids, let’s rent a barn (without money!) and put on a show (for no money)!  Historiann has even developed this generic university seal to symbolize this movement with the Seal Generator at Says-it.com.  You can make your own seal–say it with me nowfor no money!  Can you feel the excellence, my darlings?  Let’s see if the copier company will be happy to to fix our copier–for no money!  How about serving up lunch in the student center to us–for no money!  Maybe Shell Oil will donate gasoline for staff and faculty vehicles so that we can get to campus–for no money!  I wonder if banks and landlords will forgive mortgages and rents for everyone employed in higher education, so that we can house ourselves for no money!  This no money thing could work, just so long as it’s not just people in higher education who are doing it for no money!

Moose’s new slogan leads us directly to a comment by Matt L. on a recent post called “Money, class, and the values of academe” about our curious unwillingness to pay for education.  He notes:

One of my colleagues, who had spent a decade in K-12 education said that all teachers were held to an unspoken ideal: the Roman Catholic Nuns who taught in parochial schools. They were sexless, had few or no material needs, required no pay for their work, and disappeared into the convent out of sight at the end of the school day. The trope of the WASP amateur historian or the celibate scholar in the frayed tweed jacket is similar. People with no visible means of support carrying out a higher cultural mission in the name of virtue, not material gain.

Ultimately, these myths mean one thing. People, that is to say parents, students and legislators, do not value education enough to pay for it. Instead they would like it to be a commodity that costs as little as possible. If you want to know what society really values in a university go look at the salaries of Big 10 football and basketball coaches.  

Yes, indeedy.  Let’s see who’s willing to coach the team for no money!  But no university president would dream of asking the coach to work for nothing–he works in a sector that’s very male dominated and hasn’t traditionally coasted on the volunteer labor of religious women, underpaid secular women, or WASP dilettantes with inheritances. 

At the conclusion of that post, I asked, “Is the meaning of what we do all day long–teaching, research, and service–dependent on how badly we need the paycheck?  Is it not work, regardless of the worker?”  Today’s koan, my darlings, is slightly modified:  Is the price paid for the work dependent on the work, or on the worker?  And, what’s the real price of “Excellence Without Money?”

0 thoughts on “Excellence Without Money!

  1. Oh, you sardonic genius and mistress of free internets graphics programs! I want a tee-shirt, and I want it now! And a coffee cup, two backpacks, and three hooded sweatshirts, size L, in red (to match the state of our budgets). The moms are way behind on their holiday shopping, per usual, and this could be the answer to their problems.

    Thanks for taking up the cause of Excellence Without Money. Moose just wants to make sure that the phrase “back-of-the-cereal-box history” isn’t a snarky dig aimed at a lit critter’s sincere attempt to trace the sordid history of academic capitalism over the past couple of decades. My typist is extremely sensitive, you know. 😉


  2. No–no snideness implied at all. I admire your concision, Roxie/Moose!

    And, yes, Mother of ALL–but they didn’t have a middle-finger graphic selection! This was the best I could do using free internet toys (and isn’t the point of this post that you get what you pay for?)


  3. Not that you need anyone to point it out, Historiann, but one aspect of the “no money” dynamic is clearly that universities invest in what they identify as the key features of their brand–including those Big Ten football and basketball coaches and teams. Few schools of that type especially are well branded as centers of humanistic education–so why invest in the humanties as a part of a branding exercise?

    In tough times, things perceived as central to the brand will be maintained, and even invested in more deeply; in good times, the brand can expand, and the investments get shared around more widely.

    During every college football game on most tv (and basketball, too, I think) universities get a brief opportunity to air a commercial, in which they get to “brand” themselves as not only a sports school, but also as whatever else. One of my old schools, Brutus University, has taken to branding itself (in part) as giving people access to a particular sports cheer, which they show people re-creating across the globe. That is, part of Brutus U’s brand is explicitly social (as well as sports oriented): you will be a member of a community and you’ll have a secret handshake (sorry, “cheer”). Academics are secondary to this branding, it seems; and when they do show up in these commercials, it’s usually a montage: a science lab, a lecture hall, a faculty office, a gender-and-racially-balanced group of students laughing outdoors.

    Increases in tuition and decreases in other sorts of support, of course, explicitly increase the importance of such branding efforts. If we don’t like these kinds of branding strategies, the best policy might be to work to find a new tuition-independent funding model.

    I’ll get the think tank working on it.


  4. You sure you’re not working at Brezhnev State U., Historiann? I hope so, ’cause it would be fun having you as a colleague in the Spring, but I doubt that it’s so. But seriously, that sounds like MY building. The floor in front of the departmental mailboxes was sopping the day I went for my on-campus and it’s been sopping on many a day since. Now they’re threatening to tear down what’s really a National Register-eligible building (albeit with Superfund-quality bones and mechanicals) to put up a huge building for multiple humanities departments with smaller offices and bigger classrooms. It hadn’t occurred that the meltdown might disrupt this scheme.

    As a colleague of mine in the National Bark Service told an angry superior many years ago, in front of a disgruntled but suddenly bemused staff meeting, “No, less is not more, less is LESS, only MORE is more.” Still true after all these years.


  5. The most frustrating part at my university is not that we have to cut our expenses significantly, it’s that the spending cuts are dictated from above in a “one size fits all” fashion. If the department were simply given an amount of money to cut, we could make economies so as to minimize the effect on the quality of our program. Instead, we are forced to implement a set of policies that simply make no sense for our department. For some other departments, with different course structures, many of the cost-saving measure could work, but applied to our department, they are probably counterproductive.

    So what we face is a demand for “Excellence With All Budgeting Decisions Made by Administrators Who Know Nothing About What or How We Are Teaching.”


  6. Universities are in a strange situation of having to pay some employees for actual work at and for the running of the university (e.g. staff, counselors, food-service workers, janitorial, library) — and, on the other side faculty. When you ask, historiann, “Is the price paid for the work dependent on the work, or on the worker?” – that differs for faculty, whose work is not always directly linked to the university. Professor X may get a job at Starving U because of research done in the past or because s/he attended a particular grad program and shows promise. Faculty are at least partly paid for accomplishments rather than actual work done at Starving U (and the extent of this varies depending on institutions).

    This leads to a devaluation of work done at the university, including teaching at some research-oriented places. And let’s not get into the type of labor regularly referred to as “service.” Those of us who toil in the service industry are all too aware that the term allows Professor X to bow out to prepare for an upcoming lecture or make progress on the book.

    So in some cases it is the worker who doesn’t have to do the work and in others it is the work that has to be done by those who are willing.


  7. Not that this connection hasn’t been lost on many Historiann readers, but haven’t adjuncts already been part of the Excellence Without Money movement?

    I mean, now tenured faculty will get a taste of working with low pay [esp. if there are no pay raises and even salary cuts for the next 2-3 years], they will be without offices [cuz I feel for the History dept. at Baa Ram U if you all have to work somewhere else for the foreseeable future…thank goodness it’s the end of the term! “Deferred maintenance” is a horror], and now some tenured faculty who were able to skedaddle out of teaching those large-ish to mega-large, entry-level Intro courses filled with the illiterate, the unconscious, the unskilled, and the disaffected will experience how those students and they parents will rip their heads off if they don’t get an A just for showing up 75% of the time!

    One must wonder if these problems will help motivate the silent, immobile, largely unsympathetic tenured mass into action for their own self-preservation, which may in turn help turn the tide back on adjunctification and further corporatization of the academy.

    I doubt it. They’ll just admit more grad students to compensate with cheap labor. More the better if the dumb schmucks pay their own tuition!


  8. I was once a deanlet at a university whose advertising motto was “Take the UrbanStateU Challenge.” My boss, the dean, had a screen saver which elaborated: “Take the UrbanStateU Challenge: Run a university without resources or ideas.”


  9. Hey Historiann, Its been a couple days since I checked out your blog (pesky final exams and papers). Thanks for picking up on my comment and making it a part of your ‘Excellence without money’ post. I think the ‘no money’ meme is going to be a big one with our heartland state legislature this January.

    Also, your point about the feminized workplace is duly noted. I have heard colleagues talk about this in private for the past decade. I have to give that a lot more thought.

    My condolences to all the colleagues with delayed maintenance horror stories. The 1970s neo-Brutal that houses the Liberal Arts at my college was renovated five years ago, so no flooding. But the way the budget is looking, I suspect we’ll be buying our own light bulbs next year.


  10. I’m late weighing in on this one, but I’m reminded of an infamous comment made by the then-dean at Moo Moo U during a particularly brutal round of budget cuts: “You all are just *so* good at doing more with less!” A backhanded compliment that was really a warning that we were about to do everything with nothing. Sounds like things are headed in that direction again…


  11. Pingback: Excellence without Money! Redux : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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