Dear Provost Sullivan…

What values do we want the University to reflect?

by Jason Stahl

It’s not every day that I get a direct response from the University administration to one of my columns. But this is exactly what happened with my last column, “My Thoughts on ‘Driven to Discover,’ ” as E. Thomas Sullivan (Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the University) responded to “My Thoughts” in the February 15th issue of the Daily with a column entitled, “Driven to Discover aids mission.” Since this is exactly the type of dialogue I hoped to achieve with the initial column, I want to thank Provost Sullivan and further our dialogue in today’s column.

My initial column had two main points – one of which Provost Sullivan semi-addressed and one which he ignored. I’ll take them up in that order.

My initial column argued that “Driven to Discover” de-emphasizes the role of teaching on campus because the campaign reflects the desires of the University administration’s Strategic Positioning Plan to become “one of the top three public research universities in the world.” I argued that under such a plan, teaching would inevitably take “a back seat to selling research products.”

Provost Sullivan took issue with this, maintaining that the campaign seeks to advertise a lesser-known aspect of the University (research) instead of an already known quantity (teaching). Additionally, Provost Sullivan argued that the University is not ignoring teaching. As evidence, he cited increased student applications to the University, increases in students’ evaluations of instructors, as well as the institution of new undergraduate teaching-related departments and programs.

As someone who has taught at the University many times, I embrace these programs. Additionally, I would expect that instructor evaluations are improving as most of the teachers I know at the University work very hard in the classroom. However, Provost Sullivan’s description is noteworthy for what it leaves out.

Namely, can it really be said that we value undergraduates and their learning when tuition has increased 111 percent over the past 10 years and with another 4.5 percent hike coming in 2008 and 2009? Moreover, can it really be said that we value the teaching of all Minnesotans when, as part of Strategic Positioning, we close the General College – once a gateway into the University for working-class Minnesotans? Finally, do we really value teaching when we sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a new football stadium?

Not only does Provost Sullivan elide such questions in his response, he also completely ignores the second point of my original column – that the Driven to Discover ad campaign and the Strategic Positioning Plan extol only that research which boasts profitable “product lines.” I argued that such a view inherently privileges the sciences and engineering over the humanities and social sciences. The fact that Provost Sullivan chose not to address these points in his response speaks volumes. In fact, at one point he writes that the University is “driven to discover the next great cures and technological advances,” thus providing evidence for my critique.

The University community, and all Minnesotans, should reject such a view of University research. What the Strategic Positioning Plan and Driven to Discover are trying to do is partially privatize the University by convincing the public that the University can fund itself through the development of profitable product lines – just like any corporation.

Such a view has three disastrous effects. First, public funding for public education will dwindle further and/or be restricted to only those departments deemed monetarily profitable. Those of us who are in departments which are not seen as creating profitable research “product lines” will see funding diminish, or we will become subservient to “important departments” such as those which can create “great cures and technological advances.”

Secondly, students and the University community will internalize these values. For instance, a student who wants to be an American studies major might wonder about its “profitability” and decide instead on another major.

Finally, monetary profitability will come to be seen as more important than the values of critical thinking, learning and expanding one’s horizons in whatever venue a student chooses – values which should be at the heart of the University’s mission and no longer are under the Strategic Positioning Plan.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]