I offer my thoughts below as an invitation to further public discussion, in the hope that it may result in better decisions regarding Ohio University’s strategy for the future.
The crisis in which we find ourselves has not been caused by the OU faculty, either by any insufficiency of quality in their performance or lack of innovation on their part. Rather, it’s the result of poor administrative judgments made on behalf of the entire university.
We have seen the administrators who have installed the RCM (responsibility centered management), for example, being amply rewarded by the Board of Trustees or who leave for greener pastures without any repercussions, and more importantly, without any critical reflection on the legacy they left behind. And yet the faculty are now asked to bear the brunt of the burden for the administration’s failures. This is a basic violation of common-sense fairness. OU is suffering from poor management, not from poor teaching and research.
In broader terms, the strategic error of prior administrations and, I fear, of the current one is that an alien model is being foisted upon this university. The university leadership seems to wish to refashion OU after the Ohio State University image, where football is used as the face of the institution. OSU is, of course, a great deal more than its athletics, but it has a tradition of presenting itself to the world through its football fame.
I don’t believe this is the right strategy for OU. And yet the administration’s desire over many years to drain resources from instruction in order to grow the role of athletics says that we are trying to walk in another man’s shoes.
It’s also condescending toward the population of Southeastern Ohio to think that, for them, there is no college without a football team, an argument I have heard from a former OU president. The respectful thing to do with our Appalachian neighbors is to treat them as intelligent adults, not as backward illiterates.
I also believe that OU should grow its international dimension more energetically. Perhaps, that is one area where the resources should be redirected away from the administrative bulge that is afflicting our budget.
Case in point is OU’s struggling Southeast Asian Studies, which for decades was among the best in the nation but got starved out of competitiveness through neglect.
Foreign language instruction is shrinking as we speak: How can anyone pretend that OU has a clear sense of the emerging global world? The abandonment of foreign language requirements spells this university’s closing in on a parochial vision of education and culture.
These are the things where the money should be going. This is more in line with our own identity, not pathetic attempts to imitate OSU’s football glory – let alone the bloated administrative overhead. Directing resources toward instruction and research means keeping faculty lines after people retire and hiring new faculty to fill them, increasing support for regular faculty research leaves and for ad hoc release from teaching.
Yet these things are the first victims of financial calculations – calculations that are based on a near-term, myopic understanding of the university’s interests.
OU is a public liberal arts institution, and this is the legacy that needs to be used to build our future. The erosion of this identity is yet another factor that makes me think that OU is being refashioned into a paler replica of other universities.
Contrary to this trend, our best prospect is not about size but about raising the quality of our education. Yet, the administration seeks solutions to problems in quantitative rather than qualitative growth. We should not think of the future as an endless chase after ever greater numbers of students. Why not think of it as a steady improvement of our ability to teach and create new knowledge? If we adopted these simple, eminently defensible principles, they would have a far-reaching effect on the practical decisions we take.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the OU leadership so far is not encouraging. From Vice Chair Coleman’s remarks in the Faculty Senate last December to President Nellis’ presentation at the recent Board of Trustees meeting, the administration has opted for the rhetoric of innovative and nimble managers dragging recalcitrant faculty into the future.
But the real picture is just the reverse. The administration’s response to the past and current crises has been based on the old playbook of higher education as a corporate industry, a trend that is plaguing public universities in the United States. To resist this trend in meaningful ways – that would be a fearless step toward a fairer, more inclusive education.
The faculty who protest against the course adopted by the administration and argue for a change in approach are pushing OU leadership precisely in this direction. I hope that they will be heard by their colleagues and by the university’s leadership, and that a genuine dialogue will begin.
As of today, however, the administration has yet to acknowledge even the existence of an alternative account of the causes of the current budget shortfall – the White Paper that was presented at the OU-AAUP meeting last November. I should like to see an open and thoughtful debate about these issues, and I see such a debate as the only rational path forward.
Editor’s note: Vladimir L. Marchenkov, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy of art in Ohio University’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts.