Community practicality today

University leaders must focus on the land-grant mission, not abstract résumés.

by Clell “Skip” Staehnke

Hard times are starting to hit home at the University of Minnesota. Cutbacks are being pushed on the community from all sides amid a chorus of âÄútighten our beltâÄù speeches. Now, our assorted leaders are being asked to make tough decisions (or at least do the imagery). Hard choices are what these leaders get good money for, but I know from what IâÄôve seen happen to my department, Facilities Management, over the last year that there isnâÄôt much community practicality involved, just industrial panic. IâÄôve been a building and grounds worker (a flowery title for âÄújanitorâÄù) for over 36 years. When I started here, FM was known as Physical Plant. Yes, I guess that makes me a designated dinosaur, but it also gives me experience in âÄúhard timesâÄù at the University. WeâÄôre a land-grant university, which means regardless of how many times weâÄôre âÄúTransformationed,âÄù reinvented, bent, folded or mutilated, weâÄôre still a creature of government. As such, the communityâÄôs existence left to the mercy of state government. In higher education, the government has always lived by the maxim of âÄúgiveth and taketh away at will.âÄù When youâÄôve worked here as long as I have, youâÄôve seen good and hard times. But this time, the community doesnâÄôt seem to be as prepared for the down times as it has in the past. I could spread the blame for this phenomenon in lots of directions, including my own for being less committed to the University. But the trail would still return to the shortcomings in our leadership. For the last 20 years, weâÄôve seen the once strong and binding fabric of the University community fray and melt away to executive whim and business âÄúdog and pony showâÄù fancy. Over the past couple of years in my department, thereâÄôs been a steady parade of incompetent shake-ups, teardowns and âÄúbuddy-proppingâÄù that IâÄôm sure would be all the rage in some schlock corporate boardroom. Too many University departments have been nothing but business fodder for inept, politically connected executives who really donâÄôt know or care for their people or even the department but use their power to promote their on-paper business borscht nonsense to climb the administrative ladder. This lame approach has been a mainstay in FM for almost 20 years. We workers tend to call it âÄúFeces ManagementâÄù because we know the title fits. In these times âÄî now more than ever âÄî whatâÄôs demanded is community practicality. Community practicality is simple, and in hard times in the past weâÄôve reverted to it. When you cite âÄúcommunity practicalityâÄù to the administrative high-and-removed or the business crowd, they cringe or cover their ears. Community practicality is little more than public service. Granted, public service has gotten a bad name over the years. Just look at the present pothole fiasco in St. Paul. When there is a breakdown in public service, it usually stems from dimwitted, quick-fix business approaches promoted by executive wannabes in government. In public service, you actually upgrade people to people instead of degrade them to customer. To true public servants, calling people customers is the same as calling them cattle. People deserve better. In times like these, along with community practicality, you also have to have community character. ItâÄôs a byproduct of public service. ItâÄôs a mindset that understands that even in hard times your involved commitment and community duty canâÄôt falter. Sanitizing a rest room, picking up a mess after a demonstration or helping a student get a grant are demanded by your full involvement in and commitment to this University community. We workers understand these principles. Though, IâÄôve faltered some after so many years of succumbing to shake-and-bake leadership. Yet, I know that to understand those ideals you have to walk a mile in our shoes, or at least have some degree of genuine community care within yourself. I donâÄôt expect our leadership to buy into these ideals. TheyâÄôre still coming to terms with how to make us a world-class university when the government is in âÄútaketh awayâÄù mode. Clell âÄúSkipâÄù Staehnke, University staff