university futures

Probably not a commodity you want to invest in, right? Nevertheless, UB with a new provost and president is engaged in the familiar process of developing its strategic plan. It's difficult to imagine this as anything other than a cynical process: politicians and corporations want a skilled labor pool, univ admins want institutional prominence as determined by familiar metrics, students want credentials for jobs, and faculty want support for their individual research and their local disciplinary interests (e.g. support for their department, program, center, etc.). The strategic plan then becomes a language game where everyone tries to get terminology into it that will fund them down the road. 

And maybe that's all a strategic plan can be or should be. So when the university asks what should we be doing, it's a strange question. How do you answer in something that isn't really a version of "more of the same"?  Or worse something like "those people over there should be defunded and you should give me their money"?

I'm less interested here in the particular vagaries of UB's mission than I am with the rhetorical practice of institutional strategy building. How would you go about it? A couple things strike me.

  • Most obviously one is not starting from scratch. So if you're making a 5- or 10-year plan, how much does one really imagine will change?
  • Is there a kairotic moment for change? Sure, it's hard to find a department that believes it is well-funded. Everyone wants more so that they can keep doing what they're doing but bigger and better. But is there really a collective sense that we need to act differently?
  • Pragmatically (or cynically) is a strategic plan a negotation among stakeholders? If so, what's strategic about it? Getting buy-in from faculty, admin, and staff for a few years?
  • Is a strategic plan really a decision-making document or is it more like a PR strategy for how we will talk about ourselves?

To set aside all the skepticism of a universtiy strategic plan, I would say that one thing that it absolutely needs is a comprehensive plan for meeting the challenges of entering a digital age. In teaching, we need to figure out how to teach well online, build physical spaces that facilitate in-class learning with digital media, figure out how to teach in those spaces too, help our students develop digital literacies, and construct a network that will support all that. In research we similarly need to support faculty in transitioning to digital publication, determine how to evaluate new scholarly practices, and create digital infrastructure to support these activites. Perhaps more importantly we need to develop smart administrative practices that can make good decisions out of student data. This last one seems to me to be the real black swan for higher education. We think we know what student information systems should look like because we've been using them for years, but I really don't think we are prepared for the level of data that will become available.

Obviously these digital matters are just one potential part of a university's strategic plan, the part with which I am most familiar. I also recognize that it is an issue that many of my humanities colleagues find troubling. Does it make sense of the humanities to refuse responsiblity for teaching and researching digital literacy? That would seem like a dangerous gambit and yet taking responsibility would be difficult for many current faculty. This month on the Writing Program Admin list, faculty are hemming and hawing over handling laptops in the classroom. Put briefly, even the most experienced writing teachers are uncertain about addressing one of the basic features of contemporary life: we are online. And these are faculty who think seriously and often about teaching, who take up pedagogy as a site of research. What's the chance that other faculty are better off? How will such faculty be able to develop a strategic response to this challenge? Or do they imagine that 10 years from now they will still be sitting in the same classrooms, teaching the same courses, and asking students to "turn off" the same devices?

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