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January 19, 2010

I do not know if any administrator has begun to use crisatunity (pronounced CRY-sa-too-nity according to the New York Times) in their communications about our budget crisis.  I suspect, however, that it may be only a matter of time before one of our younger and hipper  administrators — there actually are a few —  will begin use it.   In the Twitter era, this mash-up of crisis and opportunity is a way to  capture an idea most recently promoted by Rahm Emanuel, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”

Crisatunity has already taken on an additional meaning best illustrated with an example.  When activist organizers are trying to raise public awareness  about some major problem like poverty, it can cause their target audience to begin to feel helpless and powerless if their messages are too general.  After all,  big problems like poverty are intractable  — as Jesus noted “You will always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7).  By focusing on a specific, local example of poverty, e.g., somebody in town unable to pay their medical or heating bills, you create a crisatunity.  This is a problem that can be solved.  By focusing on this tractable problem, people who are asked to help feel that they can be effective and they are more willing to contribute their money or time.  In this sense, a crisatunity is created by taking a big problem and breaking up it into small, component problems that can be understood and solved by individuals or small groups.

As it is presented by administrators  in emails and in public forums, our budget crisis is a big problem.  A problem so big that they admit that they are still trying to figure out how to solve it.   This leaves the faculty and staff feeling helpless and powerless.  If the president, provost and deans can’t figure out how to solve the budget problem, what can the faculty do?

To make matters worse, our administrators are trying to solve the budget crisis largely on their own and in secret.   The justification for the secrecy is that they do not want to needlessly frighten the natives by publicly discussing budget cutting scenarios that may never happen. This lack of confidence in the ability of the faculty and staff to be full participants in solving our budget crisis is both short sighted and insulting.  If there is any group that has the ability to analyze and solve problems, it is university faculty.  This is what they are trained to do, and this is a skill that they trying to inculcate daily in their students.

Can our budget problem be solved by breaking it up into a series of  smaller problems in order to create crisatunities?  Of course it can, but this requires making the faculty and staff equal partners in finding solutions.  The university needs to eliminate academic programs that are no longer attracting students and to replace them with new programs that will.  Faculty discussions about how to improve specific academic programs and how to reduce their costs will create  crisatunities.  All decisions  about the future of academic programs are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty.  Why not involve them from the beginning?

The paternalism of the administration is both unfortunate and counterproductive.  Instead of harnessing the creative energies of the faculty,  the administration largely ignores them, and in doing so, it has needlessly raised the level of institutional paranoia to unprecedented levels.  It is not what you know that you worry about, but what you don’t know.  Faculty and staff know very little about the potential solutions to the budget crisis that are being discussed by administrators behind closed doors.  Consequently, they are very worried.

In short, the budget crisis is frequently touted by administrators as a way to refocus the university.  Refocusing the university will require the cooperation of the faculty and can best be done by using the faculty’s problem solving skills.   Faculty are in the best position to  evaluate academic programs in order to determine which programs  should be eliminated or scaled back, which should be expanded, and which new programs should be initiated.  What is needed is a bottom up, not a top down, approach to solving our budget problem.  This is the only way to create crisatunities.

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