Wednesday, March 31, 2010

gala event this summer at Santa Claus!

Late last week, just before a staff furlough day, the university's Foundation Board announced that Sarah Palin would speak at this summer's 50th anniversary celebration, as a fund-raiser. This has provoked the kind of reaction you might expect from faculty -- anger that someone of her ilk was chosen to speak as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of a public university.

The conversation on campus has largely consisted of faculty and some staff saying she's inappropriate because she's demonstrated the intellectual integrity and curiosity of a deranged sociopathic muskox in heat, and other staff and administrative people saying that her detractors are leftists and should shut up because her invitation restores political balance to campus events. I think the balance of truth on these issues is clearly on the side of the muskox, but I also think this debate misses the point.

The other topic of conversation is whether she's going to be a viable fund-raiser, given that the event as described involves her speaking (at an amount the university refuses to disclose, although she commands $100,000 speaking fees), a five-course dinner, and dancing. At $500 a ticket, the university would have to sell 200 tickets to make up her speaking fee -- and never mind the tremendous amount it would cost for the dinner, dancing, rentals, security, etc. The university Foundation Board has responded to this issue by saying that not one red cent of public money would pay for her speaking fee, and that the event is to raise money, not to address the university. I don't think that's the point, either. (Although it's obviously also not an intellectually honest response, since the money in the Foundation Board is meant to be used prudently for the advancement of the public good served by the university. Claiming that the university community and their values aren't important in making this decision suggests that the only business the university believes it's in is business.)

Today it was revealed that Fox News' new Sarah Palin show (which isn't, yet, called "The Sarah Palin Show") had planned to air a segment edited to make it appear Palin had interviewed LL Cool J about his being a real American. LL Cool J discovered this, made a fuss about it, and Fox News pulled his segment, expressing their disappointment that he didn't want to be associated with a program that could inspire Americans. Interesting.

I think the real issue here is how this decision was made, by whom, when, involving what kinds of planning processes, with whose input. A current university employee with GOP political aspirations works on that side of the house, for instance. That person has consistently vilified the faculty and dismissed student concerns about budget priorities, the unilateral change to our academic calendar, and other issues that have plagued the university in the last several years. The decision has been made with absolutely no consideration of the actual community the university serves, the actual community the university is, or the real working and learning lives of the members of the university. This is not my interpretation, it is the Foundation Board's own claim about their choice.

What this illustrates is how universities have evolved as organizations (for it is a widespread tendency, not at all isolated to this campus). One part of the university engages in the day-to-day work of teaching and learning, where students and faculty engage in the challenge of education, in what are almost uniformly uncomfortable, poorly-equipped, poorly-maintained, inadequate and impoverished spaces -- because resources are not spent on improving the teaching and learning environment until absolutely necessary, or funded by a prominent, elite donor. Every month I encounter classrooms without supplies, or without working equipment, and the staff charged with those essential background activities can't keep up. Another part of the university spends large quantities of money on raising money, and does not have any legal requirement to account for its activities. My part of the university claims that the money-raising part of the university should be working in the interest of the university. The money-raising part of the university claims I have no right to ask about their activities, and that their activities aren't relevant to me, aren't addressed to me, and aren't for me.

Nominally, the university is in the business of education - teaching, learning, research, scholarship, creative activity, cultural re-production, the development of citizens. There is another, shadowy university that has no other purpose than fund-raising. And its purposes beyond that are not something they can be called upon to discuss.

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