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November 20, 2009

A friend of mine ran into my wife recently in a store and asked her whether fame was going to my head.  She was puzzled by this question until my friend explained  that he had heard an interview with me that morning on the local public radio station. She told him that I was handling it well. I think that I am handling it well, if for no other reason than there is not much to handle.  Fame may be only fleeting at best, but, in my case, it is almost nonexistent.

My claim to fame is based solely on a series of interviews about our ongoing budget crisis that I have given in the last few weeks to local newspapers, radio stations, and one local TV station.  The only reason that I was  interviewed is that I happen to be president of the faulty senate.  If the budget crisis had ended last year,  fame would have passed me by.  The press needed somebody to provide “the faculty” perspective and who better to represent the faculty then the president of the faculty senate.

Needless to say, what finally appeared in the newspaper, on the radio or on TV was only a small fragment of the interviews.  Newspaper reporters mostly interview you on the phone.  Consequently, it is impossible to know what exactly they jotted in their notebooks  (typed into their computers in reality based on the key clicks).  When talking to radio and TV reporters, I do not worry very much about being misquoted or quoted out of context.  What I do worry about is sounding like a fool.  Like most academics, I talk too much and do not naturally speak in 30 second “sound bites.”

It is not being misquoted, quoted out of context or quoted to support a point in a story with which I do not agree that really worries me after an interview.  My real concern is “Should I be speaking  for the faculty? ”  I have been a faculty member for over 35 years.  During this period, if I have learned anything, it is that among faculty there is no unanimity, or rarely even a consensus, on any topic.  We disagree on curricula, prerequisites for courses, foreign language requirements, hires, administrative appointments, promotion and tenure decisions, etc.  As they did at a recent meeting, faculty members can argue for 30 minutes about the wording of one simple sentence.  We are a cantankerous lot.

After one story in a local paper in which I was quoted, a faculty member emailed me to ask if the positions that I had taken in this interview had been formally endorsed by the faculty senate.   The best answer that I could give was sort of.  They were consistent with a series of guidelines and principles that the senate had passed to deal with budget issues.

When it comes to budget cuts, faculty continue to disagree on what is the best approach to reducing expenditures.  In this context, the faculty fall into two broad camps, the bleeding-heart liberals and the tough-minded realists.  The bleeding-heart liberals favor options that preserve jobs.  They would rather see faculty and staff sacrifice collectively than see anyone laid off.  Thus, they favor furloughs and reductions in benefits rather than elimination of programs.  In fact, they favor furlough that will not adversely effect students.  The tough-minded realists believe that budget reductions require a realignment of the university’s programs.   They do not favor furloughs or benefit cuts.  If there have to be furloughs, realists favor closing down the entire university on furlough days.  They want consequences.   They also want the administration to make the tough decisions needed to realign our programs with the new budget realities.  Realists want so see the administration  eliminate programs that they view as underperforming or no longer needed.  These are, of course, never programs in which they teach.

Until recently, I was completely in the tough-minded realist camp.  I had a list of weak programs that could be closed down and whose elimination, as far as I was concerned, would benefit the university.   Of course, I do not teach in any of them.  I believed that administrators, who would not make the tough decisions to close these programs, were shirking their responsibilities.   I wanted furloughs with consequences.  As I noted in my most recent blog, I no longer think that strategic planning can be done or should be done during a budget crisis.  The university needs to focus on cutting expenditures by eliminating all unessential services and support programs across the board.  Until this is done, we should not be considering closing or scaling back academic programs or reorganizing departments or other academic units.  These kinds of programmatic decisions with significant long-term consequences need to be made in a considered way after due deliberation of the pros and cons.  During a budget crisis, there is no time for due deliberation.  In any case, these kinds reorganizations do not result in the significant short-term reductions in expenditures that are required during a budget crisis.  On the other hand, I have not become a full-fledged, bleeding-heart liberal.  I still do not believe in furloughs without consequences and in cutting benefits.

Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes.  My guess is that I have been famous for about 5 of the 15 minutes allotted to me.  I can hardly wait to see what my remaining 10 minutes of fame will bring. Unfortunately,  I suspect that most of them will be the result of yet more interviews about budget cuts.   We are less than half way through the academic year and planning for the FY2011 budget has just begun.  I may not represent the views of “the faculty”  in future interviews any better than I did in the past, but I will continue to defend their interests as best I can.

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