Clashing conversations

Tonight, fork over $20 for a talk about research. Or pay nothing to talk about a corporatized University.

Gil Rodman

If you want to get a sense of the importance of the University of Minnesota, thereâÄôs a great conversation taking place on campus tonight that you shouldnâÄôt miss. Then, almost immediately after, thereâÄôs another event, misleadingly billed as a âÄúGreat Conversation,âÄù you could attend as well.
The second event involves three men whoâÄôve made careers out of university administration. Robert Berdahl has served as a dean, a vice chancellor, a chancellor and a president. HeâÄôs now the president of the Association of American Universities. Jonathan Cole has served as a vice chancellor, a provost and a dean. Finally, President Robert Bruininks has also held the titles of dean and provost. Tickets to their conversation start at $20.
ThereâÄôs certainly a lot of value in having a public conversation about the role of the University. And, given the range of things universities are expected to achieve, no single conversation can be expected to do justice to all the variations on that theme.
Nonetheless, itâÄôs distressing that the range of voices scheduled at Ted Mann this evening is so limited. Students, staff, faculty, legislators and community leaders all have something valuable to contribute to such a dialogue. That this conversation consists entirely of career administrators suggests Bruininks and company are perfectly happy to talk at, but not with, legitimate stakeholders in the future of the university.
As if the top-down nature of this event isnâÄôt already enough of a betrayal of the democratic ethos of a land-grant institution, the price tag makes it clear that this conversation isnâÄôt for the public. The president of a stateâÄôs flagship university should be willing to speak to the citizens of that state about his or her vision of the institution without charging them for the âÄúprivilege.âÄù
I donâÄôt know exactly what the speakers tonight will say about the UniversityâÄôs future. But I can guess it will revolve around a vision of the University as a profit-driven corporation rather than a state institution with an obligation to serve the public.
They will talk about the challenges posed to universities by dwindling financial resources, but they wonâÄôt say much at all about the impact of the economic downturn on students. WeâÄôll hear a lot about partnering with business interests to help fund new construction projects, but very little about how to make a college education more affordable to the average citizen.
They will offer platitudes about the value of education and the need to maintain high standards for classroom instruction, but they will be silent about how universities have systematically undermined these values by slashing instructional budgets, shuttering departments and increasing class sizes. To the extent they acknowledge such anti-educational practices, they will dramatically underestimate their impact.
But they will have a lot to say about the value of research. For career administrators, after all, âÄúresearchâÄù is, first and foremost, about the sort of work that produces technologies that the University can patent, own and translate into revenue. So their vision of the University will (at best) only include the arts, humanities and the social sciences as a sort of decorative afterthought, disturbing in its silence about the value of a well funded and staffed library.
For a more robust conversation about the future of the University, youâÄôre better off attending âÄúReclaiming the UniversityâÄù at 5 p.m. in Blegen Hall, room 5. This conversation offers a broader spectrum of voices: Carl Elliott, professor at the Center for Bioethics; Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors; and Sofia Shank, a WomenâÄôs Studies undergraduate. TheyâÄôll focus on how the corporatized university is failing the public it claims to serve. And, of course, this great conversation is free and open to the public.

Gil Rodman, an associate professor of Communications Studies, is a member of Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education. Please send comments to [email protected]