Powers’ contradictory vision

On Tuesday, Jan. 29, UT President William Powers Jr. presented a narrative, “Smarter Systems for a Greater UT,” which sounds too good to be true. That’s in large part because it is. The strategy developed for making the University work better and more efficiently while still retaining its excellence is what President Powers is calling “attrition,” namely, allowing jobs to vanish when the people who did them leave their positions voluntarily. Powers suggestion we can rely on the random circumstances which cause people to retire or quit to determine how we will shape the future of the University. That might constitute a contradiction, certainly not a plan.

As the crowning example of how UT will move into the future, President Powers gave us this homily: “In 1586, the Pope decided that an obelisk at the Circus Maximus should be moved to the square in front of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica.” Really? The pope managed to move an obelisk?  Several obelisks? (Could he have done this and carried out a rationalization of his workforce through a policy of attrition?) Are these really the contradictory and convoluted metaphors of innovation to which the University has been reduced? 

You cannot have a strategic vision for a university based on attrition; Powers’ proposals would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the University spent $960,000 to develop its well-worked-out plan for saving money that amounts to, well, doing nothing and then charging more for it. This is strategic neglect masquerading as policy.

Two years ago, the Center for Asian American Studies, an already tiny center, was cut by 25 percent, despite the fact that my colleagues who work in the Center were exceeding expectations in terms of our “efficiency.” Every metric that the University developed demonstrated at the time that the Center was actually performing well. That year we also lost a senior faculty member to another institution. The University did not approve using those savings to hire a replacement.

Last year, we also lost a full-time staff person who was then replaced by a part-time staff person, and two faculty members were denied tenure. This year, that part-time staff person will have to leave her job because it doesn’t provide her with necessary dental coverage. The University, we have been informed, will not be refilling her position. This is attrition in real time and it means that the Center is at risk of disappearing all together.

The Center will be one more casualty that will prove to the University that its plan is working. There will be no discussion of the work that the faculty here do, the students they serve, the projects they work on, the communities outside the University to which they connect us. Will we even pause to ask what is strategic or smart about this?

Attrition, as President Powers imagines it, amounts to taking excellence and then sapping it of all of its strength. It is only through the deployment of Orwellian rhetoric that passivity can present itself as ingenuity and intelligence. This is business orthodoxy pretending to be reform.

Lest I forget, here are the remaining bits of the plan Powers put forth: Charge more for things that people need like food and parking, and pay people less for the work they already do. Oh, and then there is also last year’s decision to charge students more tuition. This is exactly what it means to run the University like a business, and no amount of papal sanctification can turn this water into wine. We’ve run out of creativity at the top and we are hoping for miracles.

The sad part is that this plan will work: There will be savings, there will be efficiencies. But it will also mean real, human casualties. Education will suffer, as will the services that students are offered. It will also be more expensive to be a Longhorn. Jobs will simply vanish into the ether. And we will make do with less. But the emphasis in that sentence has to be on the word “less” and not on the term “make do.”  And by the way, do you want an education in which “making do” is supposed to sound like “hallelujah?”

Shingavi is an assistant professor in the Department of English and the Center for Asian American Studies.