A Critique of the Cuts

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

July 27, 2010

“Oh be still my beating heart...I just fell in love again. Was that a shawl Eva was wearing, or a Superwoman cape?”

What prompts academics to declare a scholar a superhero? The praise above is from a comment on a blog that linked to Eva von Dassow’s presentation before a recent public forum of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

Von Dassow, a professor of classical and Near Eastern studies, had only three minutes (and she was reminded with a gavel when she needed to wrap up). But the video of her talk is inspiring many of her colleagues at Minnesota and elsewhere, many of them fed up with what they view as unrelenting budget cuts, particularly of humanities disciplines. The video is already being suggested for viewing before other universities consider new rounds of cuts.

In an interview on Monday, von Dassow said she would never have posted the video to YouTube (and doesn’t even know how), but that they are indeed her words and her context.

Link to YouTube footage

Von Dassow had several themes in her brief remarks. She argued that the financial challenge, while real, is less severe than administrators suggest. Being forced to manage on a 2006 level of state appropriations “doesn’t look like a severe financial crisis”, she said. But while cuts are being ordered, she said that the new frugality “leaves undiminished the numbers of vice-presidents, not to mention the salaries of coaches. No, these highly paid positions are not to be reduced. Rather, the university must shed faculty,” she said.

Noting that the university has a stated goal of becoming one of the top three public universities in the world, she asked if “this is how we become one of the top three universities in the universe”, by cutting “our way to distinction by pruning the tree of knowledge”.

While the university’s leaders talk about strategy and rewarding excellence, she said that the budget difficulties are being used to make choices that undercut disciplines for reasons having nothing to do with excellence. It doesn’t matter how good some programmes are, she says, if they get in the way of a goal of “starving certain parts of the university in order to feed others”.

Specifically, she said that “those programmes engaged in the production of knowledge that is readily turned into money are the targets of investment while the rest are to be downsized into an efficient credit and degree factory”. She cited liberal arts programmes losing faculty slots while there is money for new biomedical research professors (taking care to say that biomedical research is indeed valuable and that she was questioning only the idea that other programmes aren’t worthy based on their lack of financial payoff).

In an interview, she said that she was inspired to sign up for one of the slots at the open forum by a feeling that there is a choice facing higher education today, on whether “the guiding principles are going to be money” or “intellectually defensible principles”. She said that last year, she chaired a search committee for a faculty position in ancient religions – an area crucial to the religious studies programme – that was called off by the administration (along with many others) just as the panel was finishing its work. She said that the contrast between academic departments being told to do without, while other areas continued to spend, raised questions she wanted to address.

She said she spoke as an individual, but she is also one of the members of a new group, Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education.

There are no signs that von Dassow changed the minds of university administrators or regents. A spokesman, asked about a reaction to her critique, said via email: “Professor von Dassow’s perspective is one of many faculty perspectives at the University of Minnesota. We certainly appreciate her taking the time to express it. The University Senate overwhelmingly supported the president’s plan for temporary pay cuts and his operating budget was unanimously supported by our Board of Regents.”

Von Dassow said that she has received no direct response from administrators, and that she hopes that the video inspires others to speak up.

“Tenure has to be worth something, and the freedom to speak that comes with the privilege of tenure is our first duty,” she said.

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