Monday, October 8, 2012

Unreal university

I had some great historical fiction news to pass on to everyone this week, but given certain developments at my university I think I will hold off on those until next time.   Some facts have come to light about a recently resigned UCA administrator that are so disturbing--so mind boggling--that I'm having a hard time thinking about anything else.  So for those not particularly interested in university politics, you might just want to skip this post.  Still with me?  If you've read this blog before, you might remember a post from early in the summer in which I complained that adminstrators at my university see themselves, and only themselves, as the real university and everyone else--meaning the actual academic departments--as something decidedly less real.  [To my knowledge only a single current administrator--our provost (whom I respect and thank for this)--has set foot in my department's building in the last two years.] Well, new information has come to light that suggests that the administration's conception of life outside Wingo Hall isn't just dismissive; it's unreal.

The week wasn't going very well anyway after a local newspaper revealed the nature of raises given to UCA athletic coaches last spring.  These raises were at the least a very tacky thing to do, given that faculty are told over and again that NO MONEY exists for raises.  It was probably this tacky quality that made our president keep mum about the raises until September.  But it didn't help that he then tried to claim that the raises were funded mostly with "private money."  No, actually, according to the newspaper report, they were funded mostly with public monies, monies derived at least partly from a fraudulent tutoring scheme in which coaches were supposedly being paid for supposedly delivering supposed tutoring, tutoring that was actually delivered by subordinates--for no pay at all.  We were originally told that the public portion of the raises came from monies available because the atheltic department had not used all of its salary allotment for the year.  That may or may be true, but even so it's a fact that no academic department at UCA can simply hold on to unspent salary money and direct it to other of its employees in the form of raises or bonues.  The administration regards such money as its own and takes it back.  An academic chair who tried to give a raise to an employee in this way would be slapped down.  Hard.   But at UCA it's a been a recent tradition--going back through three presidents--that when it comes to atheltic salaries, the rules that the rest of the university follows are rendered meaningless.  (A previous president allegedly laundered money through an advertising agency in order to give our football coach a raise.  His successor maintained a policy in which student fees designated for non-athletic purposes were funneled without apology to the athletic department.)

So as UCA shenanigans goes, this is pretty standard fare.  What's disheartening isn't really the raises themselves--which the coaches, like nearly all UCA employees, probably deserve in the abstract--nor even the fact that UCA's faculty never get raises, but that whenever funding is needed for any academic initiative the answer is inevitably no.  This could mean funds to hire a faculty member to replace another who has left so that we can continue to deliver important classes to our students; this could mean adding additional faculty members with important new skill sets in order to deliver vital new classes to our students; this could mean offering travel money to faculty so that they can attend conferences at which they disseminate their own reseach and hear about research done by others; it could mean replacing old and/or failing equipment so that academic departments can simply carry on their daily business.  (Right now, the laser printer in my department's work room is inoperable.  Why?  Because it needs a single black toner cartridge, and no money exists in our budget to buy one.  Yep.  You heard right.  We can't afford a toner cartridge.)  The underlying problem is that the reflexive response of this adminstration to academic needs is always to say no, even while it apparently bends or breaks the rules of the university in order to say yes to athletics.  Listen, I love football.  I've watched my university's footballl team several times and always enjoyed it.  But apparently the administration needs reminding that while the athletic department impacts part of the student population, academic departments impact 100% of the student population.  Without a football team, the university's academic mission, and the lives of nearly all its students, would continue unaffected.  But without UCA's academic side, its football team would have no reason to exist.

This less-than-real state of affairs turned unreal late in the week when the activites of one former administrator, who resigned early last summer, were made public.  This man, a close friend of our current president and until recently the second highest-ranking official at the university, one who had a job with the Nixonian title of "Chief of Staff," allegedly made a habit of loaning out the master keys to the university to young male "friends" so that these people could break into faculty offices and burglarize them.  These thefts allegedly included the theft of examinations, which the thieves then sold to other students.  According to the police affidavit, the chief of staff once even ACCOMPANIED his young male "friend" on one of these raids.  Now think about that for a minute.  He is the second highest ranking official at the university (and formerly its chief legal officer) and he is allegedly participating in a criminal assault on a faculty office.  According to the affadavit, these raids happened not once but several times, with faculty from across the university being victimized.  Such alleged actions go beyond a gross indifference to the academic mission of the university; they amount to open warfare upon that mission.  By someone at the highest levels of the university's administration.

I think it's a fair question to ask, as was asked of Mr. Nixon about a different break-in: What did the president know, and when did he know it? After all, the alleged key-loaner was the president's close friend, his old college pal,  and his chief of staff.  I am not suggesting that information currently exists that proves the president knew.  I certainly have no such information.  I am simply saying that it seems unlikely the president could not have had even the slightest sense of what someone so close to him did on a regular basis.  To questions about this new scandal, the president so far has only offered a stony "No Comment."  A more appropriate response would be: "This is disgusting, sickening behavior, utterly unbecoming an official at a university he puports to serve and a violation of the principles of my administration.  I'm glad he's not working here anymore."  But apparently all the president can say is, "No Comment."  Not a good sign.  We already know, by his own admission last summer, that this president was told by his chief of staff, midway through last academic year, that the master keys to the university were "lost."  The president knew that the security of the entire campus was compromised, and he apparently told no one for months.  He only revealed this security breach several weeks after the chief of staff''s young "friend" was caught on camera stealng prescription drugs out of a university office.  What did our president say immediately after the theft happened and his chief of staff promptly resigned?  "We thank him for his service to the university."  Thank him?  How about we thank the police investigators who have since uncovered this man's alleged criminal acts (there are more I haven't mentioned) and will soon have him behind bars awaiting bail?  That's who I'd like to thank: someone in public service who is actually doing his job.

As a contrast, let me point to Dr. Teresa Sullivan, the president of my alma mater, the University of Virginia.  Early last summer, Dr. Sullivan--who earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago--submitted to a forced resignation rather than enact certain academic cuts and redirections being forced upon her by the university's Board of Visitors, cuts and redirections that violated the nature, spirit, history, and mission of the university.   In short, she chose to be fired rather than do something that violated her own, and the university's, academic integrity.  Well, the entire campus, along with UVA's substantial network of alumni, rallied around Dr. Sullivan, and she was eventually reinstated.  The Board backed off.  Academic honor won the day.  The case created glowing headlines around the country for Dr. Sullivan and the special academic place that is "Mr. Jefferson's University."  Compare that to how quickly UCA administrators are and have been willing to throw academics under the bus.  Compare that to the kinds of headlines UCA administrators have been earning for their university over the last eight or nine years.  Anybody see a difference?

Life will go on at UCA, of course.  It always does when our administrators make a criminal mess of things.  We're pretty well used to it at this point.  As always, it will be faculty who will pick up the pieces, who will teach and advise students, who will grade papers, who will fill out graduation forms and who will generally hold the university together--and without raises.  What still remains to be seen is how many administrations my university must suffer through before we find one that understands that academics is at the center of any university's raison d'etre, that sees academics as something other than a sideshow that only exists in order to be robbed.


  1. Lovely post on an unlovely subject. Sending y'all moral support.

  2. Thanks, Sandy. Any and all is appreciated.

  3. I, for one, truly appreciate your time and your willingness and your writing in spite of the university. I'm thankful you don't underestimate your importance as a teacher. You and your wife have had a huge hand in shaping me as a writer.

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Mason. It's the students that keep all of us here and all of us energized. It would be a shame to let administrators dissuade us from that crucial mission, and for the most part we don't. I know that we'd all hate to see the students slighted in any way.

  5. The image at the top of this page is from "xenim" and was made by one of my students at the university of hertfordshire, he now works for Sony making killzone. -

  6. Thank you for the information about the picture. I'm very glad to be able to give credit to the creator of that wonderful image and to your university.