I’ve tried to write this post no fewer than three times. I’m not having a case of writer’s block; I just haven’t found enough time during these last several days of the semester to tackle the task of connecting Stalin to squirrels. Actually, it’s not really a matter of connecting the two at all. It’s a matter of being concerned about failing to navigate what feels like a fairly narrow line of argument.
A little over a week ago, this post had the title “Squirrel Logic.” Then, as so often happens, events eclipsed the value of that post. And yet, I still think there is some value in the notion of “squirrel logic.” I’ll admit that I am indebted to a segment titled “Islamophobiapalooza” that Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show back on 9/7 of this year. Part of the segment focused on the media’s obsession with pastor Terry Jones’s announcement that he would burn copies of the Quran on 9/11. Here’s how the Huffington Post described the relevant portion of the segment:
Stewart likened the media’s constant coverage of the crazy pastor to the dog from the movie “Up!” It’s like no matter what is going on the world, they will drop everything if they see a squirrel. In this case, the squirrel is an irrational person who thinks burning books is OK.
If you haven’t seen the Pixar film Up this will give you an idea of the scene Stewart references:
At APSCUF-KU meet and discuss this semester, we have been asking the administration for their plans to mitigate the impact of their decisions to retrench faculty, cut release time (Alternative Work Assignments) for directors of programs, get rid of services for “at-risk” students,” eliminate long-standing programs that have been integral to the identity and history of Kutztown University (e.g. the Early Learning Center), and a host of other moves performed, ostensibly, because of a “fiscal crisis.” When the Kutztown Administration reported a $227,462 surplus for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 at the annual PASSHE Board of Governor’s meeting in October, KU’s administration tried to change its story. At our October meet and discuss meeting, KU’s Provost attempted to say that the retrenchments were due to “fiscal concerns” but they also had “programmatic dimensions.” Really? For over a year the administration has done nothing but cry “the sky is falling.” Now, they expect us to entertain a new dog and pony show? SQUIRREL!!!!
The fact is that the current KU administration is suffering from a failure of vision and a lack of any semblance of a coherent plan. And, frankly, I’m sick of chasing squirrels. It seems that ever since I’ve been at KU, faculty and staff have been asked to jump in response to one crisis after another. And, for the most part, we’ve chased the squirrel. We’ve sucked it up and worked harder. We’ve put our own research on hold, taken additional precious time out of our family lives, and struggled to maintain the quality of our teaching and service work in our pursuit of the administration’s latest cry of “SQUIRREL!” The more time I’ve spent working for our local union, the more I am convinced that the real “crisis” at Kutztown is that there is no rudder. There is no vision that guides the path ahead. Faculty and staff have jumped and chased the squirrel out of good faith and a commitment to Kutztown University. We believed in this place. We believe in our students. But we cannot continue to dart off into the woods after every snap of a twig because the administration hears a squirrel.
The story of our current “crisis” at KU is a story about the history of this squirrel logic. It’s not a sexy story. It’s not as compelling for journalists as the dominant narrative about the economic crisis. However, even the dominant narrative about the economic crisis is beginning to look more and more like a squirrel hunt. Just take a look at Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera’s new book, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, or if you don’t have the time to read the book because you’re out chasing squirrels, check out this interview. The story is less about forces of nature as it is about the accumulation of bad practices.
What has become clearer to me over this past year is that this squirrel logic is not consistent across PASSHE. It happens to be especially prevalent at Kutztown. And it is perhaps because of my Kutztown vantage point that I had mixed reactions to the most recent post on our State APSCUF blog: “The Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of PASSHE.” The post is a response to PASSHE Chancellor Cavanaugh’s release of a Board of Governor’s approved plan for “PASSHE Transformation.” I’ve got a lot to say about that plan, especially how it is in lockstep with the kind of “shock doctrine”/crisis-as-opportunity logic prevalent in higher education right now. You may recall my post that reported on a “concept paper” by Robert Zemsky and Joni Finney that the Chancellor circulated to State APSCUF last spring (I’d still like to see that document…hint, hint, to all you XChange readers). However, I have to save that for another post.
While I can fully appreciate what Hicks and Mash were doing in their recent post–and, I think they are dead-on when it comes to what the Chancellor is attempting to do–I find the Chancellor’s memo almost comforting. That is, at least he has articulated a vision. As vague as the Chancellor’s statement on PASSHE transformation is, he has at least explicitly articulated a vision for where he wants to take the State System. That gives us–faculty and staff–something material to discuss and engage. We can debate the need for “transformation” or we can struggle over the kind of transformation that is necessary to ensure PASSHE’s long-term mission. I may end up opposing the Chancellor’s plan on its fundamental assumptions about the purpose of higher education, but I can respect the fact that he is willing to put the work into making his plans explicit. At least he has an argument.
If I am going to be forced to choose a game, I’d rather play against Stalin than hundreds of fictional squirrels.