21.6.05

REVEALED (EXPENSE) PREFERENCES. Charlie Sykes links to two stories that lead him to question pleas of poverty by the University of Wisconsin system.

One deals with the Fine Arts Quartet, who are artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an arrangement comparable to that enjoyed by the Vermeer Quartet at Northern Illinois. That arrangement has been the subject of some acrimony in the music department as well as some scorn from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel art critics Cary Spivak and Dan Bice.
The musicians carry the title of professor, but it's been years since any of them stood at the front of a UWM lecture hall. They're too important to deal with the riff-raff, a.k.a. undergrads. On rare occasions, before a concert, some members do actually mingle with a handful of the star students in the Department of Music in a sit-down called a master class.
No surprise that Mr Sykes would pick up such a column; a frequent theme in his Profscam (details or compare prices) is the professor missing from the classroom, or present only as a lecturer who hives off all the student contact to underpaid graduate assistants and subcontracts the scoring of the scan-trons to the assessment office. The theme returns as counterpoint to an observation in a consulting report Messrs. Spivak & Bice discover.
So, when UWM recently hired a couple of consultants to analyze the music department, it wasn't surprising that the pair cast the spotlight on the Fine Arts Quartet. Their report noted that the quartet is humming along while the rest of the department is suffering from funding shortfalls and a faculty shortage.
(A situation not unique to the music program, by the way; word has reached the Superintendent's office of a dearth of intermediate accounting offerings at Milwaukee.)

The consultants' specific recommendation:
"Terminate as soon as possible the commitment to the Fine Arts Quartet. In the current environment of diminishing funding from the state, to have faculty lines consumed by non-teaching roles seems wasteful and detracts from more important uses of resources."
Possibly. Mr Sykes, who found it amusing that winners of teaching awards frequently receive a reassignment to work on teaching methods rather than teaching courses, and who was not pleased with reduced teaching responsibilities for accomplished researchers, would no doubt concur. But the existence of artists-in-residence and endowed chairs for researchers (translation: teaching duties limited to graduate seminars and supervision of dissertations) says something about an underappreciated function of higher education, namely, the cultivation of the most talented future performers, experimenters, analysts, and practitioners, as well as about the real preferences of many in the academy. So much for all that talk about "access." The inducement to become truly outstanding in one's field evidently includes an assurance that none but the best students will have access to you, whether you hold a distinguished chair at Harvard, Milwaukee, Marquette, or Barely Normal. There is nothing wrong with distinguished chairs per se, although the consultants correctly note that such positions have opportunity costs.

Their existence can be a source of rancor, as Messrs. Spivak & Bice report.

Back in the day, quartet members actually taught classes, but that changed about five years ago. Other music teachers whined about the sweetheart deal that the quartet members enjoyed by being paid more while being able to cherry-pick which classes they taught.

Robert Greenstreet, then the acting dean for fine arts, came up with the compromise of officially relieving the performers of their teaching duties but throwing the department a bone by letting it hire two professors. Greenstreet, who was out of town Friday, opted to not call us back to provide his review of how the deal has worked out.

Well, if you can't make time with the Hiawatha, best bid on a yard engine somewhere. At least management provided some additional yard crews. The dean's compromise sheds some light on how difficult it is to come up with a notion of social justice that the entire university can accept. On the one hand, a faculty with all the status hierarchies of a feudal court offends the sense of justice of the serfs and mendicant monks; on the other hand, to not develop great talent to its fullest potential is an injustice. Although senior administrators at Fine Arts or in Bolton Hall would no doubt quail at being compared to cultivators of the American Beauty rose, their behavior (which is representative of university administrators everywhere) suggests that indeed some pruning of the early buds to make possible the great talents has some value.

Then there's the Diversity Boondoggle, which diverts more resources for less return than a string quartet. Hell, more for less than a wind trio. Case in point: Wisconsin-Madison's former vice-chancellor for student affairs, now a special assistant to the chancellor, who recently took a seven-month leave occasioned by a student affair that went bad, as often happens when one goes fishing off the company pier. University officials noted that, as this student affair was consensual, involving a student who was a university employee in a different division, not reporting to the vice-chancellor, and thus not actionable, despite the following language in the university's harassment policy: "Power differentials between the parties in a consensual romantic and/or sexual relationship may cause serious consequences." Don't you just love the possibility that fishing off the company pier can be sexual without being romantic: the rabbit culture forsooth! And the student in this tryst has a power card of her own to play. "I'm boinking the Director of Diversity. Give me the grade I deserve at your peril."

So the Director of Diversity took a seven month leave and nobody noticed? Calculation of the return on that investment is left to the reader as an exercise.

But evidently that's more important than, oh, making sure that sufficient sections of Intermediate Accounting or Economics or Music Appreciation are on offer.

RUNNING EXTRA: A commenter recommends the latest from Messrs. Spivak and Bice.

"The outside reviewers comment on the wisdom of continuing support for the Fine Arts Quartet," said the UWM review of the school's music department. "The problem is that, as far as we can determine, no mechanism exists for a reassessment of whether this support still represents as valuable a resource as it did years ago when established.

"The program needs to consider whether the resources consumed in any effort represent the best use of the resources given the overall programmatic needs."

Opportunity costs are everywhere. In the music department, other faculty members (the column does not disaggregate by tenure-trackers and freeway flyers) face what the internal review characterizes as "teaching loads that are very high" and uses the term "swamped," presumably to mean that the Fire Marshal determines how many students shall be permitted in a class.

Remind me again why raising tuitions, tightening admission standards, and abolishing the face-saving tenth-week drop are bad ideas.

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