Image versus reality at the U

No one should be happy that the University administration is dumping more money into “Driven to Discover.”

Jason Stahl

Just before spring break this paper reported on the University administration’s “Driven to Discover” ad campaign, which I have written about in the past. The report was in the news section of the paper even though it often felt like an opinion piece. Granted, there was news to report: The administration has decided to sink even more money into the campaign. They are now asking for the Regents to allocate $4 million more for the campaign on top of the $2 million already spent. However, while the article reported on this new request, it seemed like its main point was to tell you how much you should love “Driven to Discover” and thus, how you should also love that the administration now wants even more money for it. In the report, thoroughly unbiased individuals like the University’s marketing director and the College of Biological Sciences Dean were there to tell you how super fantastic the campaign is going. And if you had any qualms about spending more money on “Driven to Discover,” there is no need to worry, because a marketer from the Institute of Technology is there to let you know that “it might cost a little bit of money, but what we’re going to receive in return will be worth it.”

Only at the very end of the article was a dissenting voice aired by a mathematics graduate student who suggested a better use of the money would be to take it to Vegas. In other words, this student was suggesting that almost any other use of the money would be better. I agree and have a couple suggestions of my own. In particular, since the administration now says that the ad campaign will cover “education and teaching at the University,” and not just research, I have some suggestions on teaching-related functions where the $4 million might be put to better use.

For example, the administration could use the money to help decrease the size of discussion sections. As most undergraduates know, when you’re a freshman or sophomore at the University, often your only classroom interaction is with teaching assistants in discussion sections. But what you might not know is that the sizes of discussion sections have steadily increased over the past years. For instance, when I was a history TA in fall 2001, sections were capped at 20 and now they are capped at 22. This might not seem like a lot, but there are repercussions. Discussions are harder to facilitate, the time TAs can give to each student is decreased, TAs work harder, and overall graduate student employment opportunities decrease. Additionally, the trend is likely to continue with 22 becoming 23, and so on.

Another way to use the $4 million would be to use it as a down payment towards salary increases for graduate instructors and adjunct professors (short-term teaching hires from outside the university). Undergraduates may not know this, but the reason so many of your courses are now taught by graduate instructors and adjunct professors is that it cuts labor costs for the University. Simply put, hiring a grad instructor or adjunct costs much less than allowing the course to be taught by a University professor. This isn’t to say that these adjuncts and grad instructors are better or worse teachers, only that their work is clearly valued less by the University administration. If the administration really valued teaching they would be paying these groups more rather than trying to use them to cut costs.

I could go on with more space, but the point I’m trying to make with these suggestions is that the University’s administration and its marketers need to get beyond the “image” of the University as shown through its ad campaigns and instead focus on the actual reality of what goes on here. In other words, not only do I not see the need for more money to be spent on the “Driven to Discover” campaign, I also don’t see why a public university needs a marketing department at all. By now, I think the public knows that teaching and research take place at universities and they don’t need ad campaigns to remind them. Instead, what we need are actual policies which show that the administration values teaching as much as it does some types of research. The regents can show their recognition of these realities by rejecting the additional $4 million for “Driven to Discover” and instead putting the money toward actually improving teaching conditions at the University.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]