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Yachts and Universities

June 5, 2009

For many years, one of my hobbies has been sailing.  I can’t afford to own a boat, but I can afford to charter one for a week or so each year.  Chartering is just an upscale word for renting.  This year  I chartered a catamaran in the Caribbean, and I have just returned from my latest sailing adventure.  While sailing I was too busy to think about my work or the university at which I work.  However, once I was back on land and had more time, I began to ruminate about the similarities and differences between managing yachts and universities.  These ruminations did not result in any profound or even illuminating insights.  Nevertheless,  here are a couple.

When sailing a boat around islands with lots of reefs and submerged rocks, detailed planning  is essential.  You spend a lot of time reading cruising guides, looking at charts, plotting courses, checking wind speed and direction, checking water depths, adjusting sails, and consulting your GPS.   Even a slight miscalculation can result in disaster.   For example, from the ocean it is very difficult to identify important features of islands such as entrances to bays and harbors, especially in the Caribbean where there are few navigational aids.   One of the bays in which we anchored overnight had two islands in its entrance.  Reefs from the mainland to both islands meant that you had to enter the bay between the islands.  A large number of boats have ended up on the reefs.  Their captains mistook the passages between the islands and the mainland for the real entrance to this bay.   This is easy to do.  You can see boats anchored safely in the bay through these false entrances.  The only way to enter this bay safely was to come in at a bearing of 230 degrees magnetic when lined up with the southern edge of an outlying island to the east and some radio antennas on a mountaintop in the center of the island.  Any other course would result in disaster.

What struck me when I got back to land was the stark contrast between the detailed planning required when sailing from island to island in the Caribbean and the very general strategic plans that are supposed to direct the future course of the university.   The university is just beginning to develop a new strategic five-year plan.    Consequently, I had just re-read the current plan before leaving for the Caribbean.   The current plan is largely a collection of  predictable goals:  recruit outstanding faculty, recruit outstanding students, and expand our offerings of outstanding academic programs, increase student and faculty diversity,  etc.    No specifics are given such as how many outstanding new faculty we plan to hire or where the money will come from to hire them.  Underlying assumptions about why these goals are desirable and about the future economic conditions needed to make these goals attainable are never made explicit.   Likewise, there are no contingency plans.  What do we do if the economy tanks?  What are our priorities?  Needless to say, while sailing in the Caribbean at the onset of the hurricane season, contingency plans are a must.   When sailing, you also adapt your plans as you learn more about the islands.   We altered our course on a number of occasions to visit scenic places that were not originally on our itinerary.

The university’s current strategic plan is so generic that it could easily be adopted by any other large land-grant university without having to change more than a few words.    In my opinion, in the last five years the university has made little progress toward most of its goals.  It has also never adjusted these goals in light of the ongoing economic crisis.  In nautical terms, we seem never to have left the harbor.   Our administrators would be quick to point out that this is not because of any deficiencies in the strategic plan.  External factors, they would argue, primarily budget cuts, have made it impossible to make much progress.   Maybe, but it is hard to get anywhere if you don’t have a detailed plan for getting there, even under adverse conditions. Having a strategic plan that does not take into account economic downturns seems naive.  Like hurricanes, recessions occur regularly.

Even on a well planned voyage, not everything works out as planned.  The most dangerous place to be in a boat is in a harbor.   Out on the ocean there is very little that can happen to you and your boat.   In the harbor, there are other boats and there is a shore line, neither of which you want to hit.  Consequently, anchoring securely in a harbor is essential.  You do not want to “drag” your anchor, especially at night, and begin to drift into other boats or the lee shore.   Neither the captain nor his insurance company are happy if a boat begins to drag anchor.  Nor will the captains of adjacent boats be happy.

How to anchor properly is drilled into all sailors.  There are all kinds of factors that need to be considered: depth of the water, type of bottom, distance from other boats, water currents, wind speed and direction, etc.   You normally need to put out at least 6 time the length of anchor chain as the water depth; that is, when anchoring in 5 m of water, you need to put out 30 m of chain.   One way to ensure that you are anchored securely is to “swim” your anchor to make sure that it is properly oriented and buried.   We routinely do this in tropical waters.  Even when you do everything according to the anchoring book, there is no guarantee that your anchor won’t drag.

On my recently completed trip, we anchored for a couple of nights in the outer harbor of Gustavia, St. Barts.  We managed to make it through the first night without any problems.  This is a very popular harbor that is full of large, expensive yachts, and it has a series of jagged islands all around its periphery.   It is a very scenic harbor, but not a place where you want to drag anchor.  In the morning, while we were in town shopping for food, one of the crew rushed into the grocery store to tell me that the boat was drifting toward the rocks.  Our anchor was dragging.   We managed to get to the boat, to start the engines, and to move the boat away from the rocks in time, but it was a  close call.  Although we were anchored in a better spot, I did not get much sleep our second night at Gustavia.

Although the analogy is admittedly strained, I have the feeling that the university is also dragging its anchor.  It is drifting.  We have recently adopted a new budget model and many of the implications of this model are still uncertain.  The model distributes income (tuition, state appropriations, indirect funds) more or less by formula to the various colleges.  This is suppose to “incentivize” the colleges to improve enrollments and increase faculty research productivity.   It has so far only increased competition among the colleges for students and research dollars.  The problem with this model is that it ignores the fundamental missions of the university, teaching and research.  In other words, it does not incentivize improving teaching or research per se.   It is designed solely to maximize university revenues.  What impact it will have on academic programs, class sizes, and faculty workloads is unclear.   It is clear, however, that the university will be drifting around on a sea of budgetary uncertainty for many years.  For a faculty member, this is very unsettling because there is nothing that can be done to stop this drift or to predict what its final consequences will be.  As anyone on a boat anchored in a harbor can attest, a change in conditions almost never leads to anything good.

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