Our Universities: Whining versus Winning

The only result of whining is to push people with purpose from addressing real problems.

The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.

Lord Jeffrey

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Recently the President of the University of Baltimore, Robert L. Bogomolny, and then Dean of the Law School, Phillip Closius, got into a tussle over resources.  Imagine that.  The dean felt the law school was not getting its fair share of the university pie.  That is a dean’s job…to argue for the resources that would allow them to better serve the students in their school. But, this is actually job two for deans. Job one is to have a vision for their academic units that is worth supporting.

An April 25, 2011, story in the Baltimore Sun by Larry Carson reported a $30 million donation to the University of Maryland School of Law by the W.P. Carey Foundation.  The gift may have precipitated differing perspectives that produced whining.

This kind of back and forth is not newsworthy until one of the parties makes it so.  They broadcast disagreements to make points in the court of public opinion.  And once a contest moves to that venue, it escalates beyond reason through iterations of applied martyrdom, powered by pretension.

“Winning at whining.”

The problem with such contests at public universities is that the fallout affects funding.  While almost impossible to measure, the high cost associated with whining persists.

The great challenge for “grounded” universities, those with a campus, is that they cannot sustain excellence on public funding alone.  In truth, they have not been able to do that for 40 years.  Public support is an important and necessary source of funding for universities, but as the cost of providing education has shot up in the last decides, universities have had to rely ever more strongly on gifts.  The largesse of alumni and friends of the university is an important signal that the student experience has been judged to be valuable, or at least profitable, by those who have experienced it.  Endowment size correlates with the starting salaries of graduates according to Alan Waller of Good magazine on line.  Phoenix and Capella aren’t on any lists.

Whiners in leadership will kill public higher education for two reasons.

First, when they whine at the statehouse they have to compete with whiners of every stripe in every segment of public sector inertest.  Nobody has enough money and never will, and public higher education is not a very sympathetic case.  Rightly or wrongly, universities are seen by many as too posh with too many highly paid executives who exert too much influence and are too often concerned with “what’s in it for them.”  Leaders are often suspected of cranking out benefits to friends and family like old-fashioned political hacks, rather than being seen as educators with a passion for the public interest.

Second, those who have the resources to donate funds to the university mission are typically the type of people who have little patience for whiners.  To attract donations, universities must show that they value and work for the goals that are universally important, and therefore must demonstrate a commitment to deep principles. People with conviction don’t whine, sycophants do.

The cost of public venting is high.  Institutions are hurt by such actions.  Campuses are sacred places for alumni and donors.  They are charged with memories and mythologies.  When alumni and friends come for special events – poetry readings, lectures, football games, and concerts – their vision of the strength and mission of university can be buttressed by what they experience.  Or it can be destroyed, if what they see are passive hangers-on, waiting for a handout, rather than active partners in the advance of civilization.

Whining may work occasionally in politics.  But it fails to reflect the values held by men and women of action, the ones who are most likely to develop the resources that would allow them to provide the endowments that universities covet in the effort to attain excellence.

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