From the President's Desk
Librarian at Large
Who Can We Shoot? Facing a Budget Crisis
Scott G. McNall
The scene I remember best from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes
a tenant farmer whose home is about to be bulldozed. Throughout the morning,
the farmer and his family watch a monstrous diesel tractor plowing a straight
furrow from the horizon, moving closer and closer to their door. When
the driver stops near the house for lunch, he tells the farmer that after
he finishes his sandwich, he will push through the house, to keep his
furrow straight. The farmer says if he does, he’ll shoot him. Don’t
shoot me; I’m just working for somebody else, the driver replies.
The farmer wonders, then, if he should shoot the driver’s boss.
The driver says his boss gets his orders from the bank, which in turn
gets its from a board of directors. “But where does it stop?”
the farmer asks. “Who can we shoot?” The driver has no answer.
Finally the farmer says, “There’s some way to stop this. …
We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something
we can change.”
We can, as Steinbeck’s farmer suggests, change the things we have
created, but it won’t be easy. The tenant farmer was proud of his
house; he had built it himself, using old nails he had straightened; he
had lashed the rafters down using bailing wire. Yet, in the end, the tractor
ran over it. We have created, together, over time and through collective
effort, a complex institution of which we are all justifiably proud. None
of us wants to lose what we have worked so hard for, but if we are to
emerge intact as a university from our current economic problems, we must
be very careful about what we try to save and about how we work to achieve
our highest priority, serving students. We must protect those things that
are vital to our identity and mission. We cannot do this by making pro
In Academic Affairs alone, we will have reduced the budget by almost $18
million over a three-year (2002–2005) period. This year, we used
one-time savings to facilitate a transition to a lower-base budget. We
restricted travel; we left staff, faculty, and administrative positions
vacant; and we reduced expenditures on all operating expenses (e.g., printing,
computers) over which we had control. We have worked hard to save resources
to mitigate next year’s reductions.
But we cannot allow our future to be dictated by reductions, simply shrinking
the university. We must do some things differently, and in some ways we
must build a different kind of organization. We need to have open discussions
about what is possible and what makes sense. Imagine that you are building
a new university. You might want to consider such issues as these:
• Financing or the way in which we fund all current activities,
including courses for the major and general education. You might want
to ask about which services and fees are students’ “rights,”
as opposed to those for which they should pay full costs.
• Workload of faculty, staff, and administration in light of what
the university’s primary mission is. At the moment, there are at
least 41 all-university committees and many committees at the department
and college level. Are all of them necessary? For example, if we change
the mandated way evaluations of faculty are conducted, we could save the
energies of the individuals evaluated and those who review materials.
• Administrative appointments should be carefully reviewed and opportunities
sought to consolidate units when it makes intellectual and economic sense
to do so.
• The curriculum should be evaluated to determine what combination
of courses, carefully planned and delivered, can best provide the knowledge
and skills our students need for success.
This list of issues could be expanded substantially. The past has a powerful
hold on us, but the past does not dictate our future. We can shape our
future, if we choose.
What would be your building blocks for a new university? How would you
organize the curriculum? I would be happy to hear from you. The goal is
to assure that, at the end, we aren’t standing dumbfounded like
the farmer asking, “Well, who do I shoot?”