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The Dear University Letter

December 6, 2009

Letters are sent for many reasons, and thus there are many epistolary genres: e.g., the “Dear John” letter and the “I am fine, please send money” letter, just to cite a couple with which many us are familiar.  A new epistolary genre has arisen in response to the ongoing financial crisis, the “Dear University” letter.  This is a letter sent to the entire university community by the president to bring us up to date on the current state of the budget crisis and what is being done to cut expenditures in response to revenue reductions.  The December 4, 2009 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a front-page story on this “new brand of communication from the top.”  We even have a our first anthology of these letter that can be found on the Website of the Association of American Universities.  Needless to say, we recently received our latest Dear University letter.

I spent most of our Thanksgiving break at the American Heritage Center (AHC) at the University of Wyoming.  This Center is one of the major repositories of manuscripts, correspondence, rare books, photographs, etc. dealing with the American west.  As part of an ongoing research project, I went there to examine the correspondence of one of the most influential of early American ecologists, Frederick E. Clements.  Most of Clements’ correspondence is in the AHC collection.  I was specifically interested in the origins of some of Clements’ ideas about the nature of vegetation.  Most of my time was spent reading Clements’ letters, thousands of them.  Trying to discern the intended meaning of a letter has become an important focus of my academic life.

As many post-modernists have repeatedly pointed out, a text has a life of its own.  Its interpretation is highly contingent on the experiences, beliefs and biases of the reader.  It seems to me that this is often ignored by letter writers.  This was made very clear to me while reading both sides of the correspondence in the Clements files. Clements routinely  assumes that the intended meanings of his epistles are obvious.  Their meanings did not turn out be so obvious to some of his readers.  This occasionally resulted in serious misunderstandings and hurt feelings among the people who worked for or with him.

In the case of Dear University letters, they are undoubtedly scrutinized by many members of the senior leadership team, including the university’s legal counsel, before they are sent.  Unfortunately, this prepublication review rarely includes any of the intended audience for the letter, the faculty and staff.  The administrators may understand the intent of the letter and endorse its message, but that does not guarantee that the faculty and staff will get administration’s intended message.

An examination of our recent Dear University letter illustrates the problem.  It is a doom-and-gloom letter.  After a perfunctory sentence thanking the faculty and staff for their hard work and dedication in these difficult times, the letter then goes on to describe our cumulative budget cuts and possible future budget cuts.  Message – we are in big trouble.  Problem – faculty and staff already knew that, after all we have mandatory furloughs and have had our benefits cut.  In fact, the letter fails to point out how an increase in tuition rates this year significantly reduced the impacts of smaller state appropriations and that this could happen again next year.  Why is the president overstating his case?

The letter makes only two specific points.  One, the provost is being asked to begin planning strategic budgeting for the next fiscal year.  Reaction of many faculty – what the (their favorite expletive deleted) have they been doing for the  last year?  Two, we are going to downsize or eliminate departments, programs, and activities (?).  The second point increased faculty and staff paranoia about the future of their jobs and departments.  Because of rumors already circulating that the university was planning to close departments and to fire everyone in them, faculty and staff who believed this just had their worst fears confirmed.

Our Dear University letter failed to address the real concerns of faculty, staff and students.  It failed to reassure faculty and staff that everything would be done to preserve their jobs. It failed to reassure students (and their parents) that our academic commitments to them would be upheld.  It failed to provide any kind of principles or guidelines for strategic planning.  As pointed out in the Chronicles article on the Dear University letter, universities are not businesses:  “they’re places of intellectual discovery and transformation” as President Crow of Arizona State University puts it.  The most important goal of university planning during this financial crisis is not financial solvency for it own sake. The closest our letter came to articulating a future vision of the university was that we must direct our “resources” more effectively to maximize the “success” of the university in the future.  This is the academic equivalent of being in favor of apple pie and motherhood.  It is not much on which to base a “strategic” plan.

Increased miscommunication is one of the inevitable consequences of any crisis or conflict.  Everyone with a stake in the outcome is filtering every statement, letter, email, etc. by assuming the worst intentions of its originator.  After all, your job may be on the line: it is better to be safe than sorry.  Miscommunication in Dear University letters can be avoided, or at least minimized, by issuing joint statements that are endorsed by administrators and faculty and staff leaders. This would be a simple way to demonstrate to the campus community that we are really in this together.

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