Michael Crow and Bernie Machen up the yin-yang

Monday’s New York Times story on Arizona State University stole my point earlier this month about the expenses of public research universities and the tension between undergraduate teaching and the building of a research infrastructure. Either that, or I was stating the obvious (I think I was stating the obvious). The Times quoted the ASU student State Press in pointing out that the budget cuts had turned ASU into the Neutered American University instead of Crow’s “new American university.”

Today, Timothy Burke has another thoughtful entry about the future of higher education, this time on the difficulty of building the core of a great teaching university, on top of September’s argument that the party’s over as far as a several-decades boom is concerned. And Thursday’s news about prospective cuts at the University of Florida’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences should be sobering given that UF is putatively part of the Association of American Universities, the country club of higher education in the U.S. Michael Crow’s ambitions did not protect ASU from a fiscal fiasco, and after Bernie Machen continued a decade-long trend to turn UF into a medical center with a university appendage, budget cuts have resulted in a layoff grievance that my union won decisively this month, pending disaster for science at UF, and the widespread destruction of morale around campus. So much for the value of being a member of the country-club set.

ASU and UF are the extremes of this pattern of overweening administrative/political ambition, stories of mission creep having become mission sprint and now the mission trots. Other institutions may survive this downturn without as much of a visible fiasco, and well-placed institutions might even benefit, at least in comparison. The irony of the entry title is that while “up the yin-yang” is slang for extremism (well, in one of its uses), the reason why Crow and Machen are in the Academic Hall of Shame right now is because they have not understand balance at a public university. I suspect that there is a reasonable balance, and part of my job as a faculty union leader is to do my best to push that balance. But I recognize that historical trends and current budget crises make that balance much more difficult in most places.