Keep graduate school restructuring talks open (October 2009)

[This post originally appeared in the October 29th issue of the Badger Herald]

I’ve been to two town hall meetings on reorganizing the research enterprise at UW, and like other commentators, I don’t get it. Not only do I not get how the changes are going to fix some of the problems we’re facing on running our research programs but I also don’t get why so much of the faculty is so fearful of this proposal.

The provost would be the first to admit there are very few details in the plan as presented. This might even be by design — as professor Mike Corradini pointed out in the final town hall, a full proposal would have been torn apart as soon as it was unveiled. The proposal creates a new vice chancellor for research, split off as a separate position from the current dean of the graduate school and vice chancellor for research. Some functions of the current job would stay with the dean of the grad school, but other functions would go with the new position. Additionally, some of the safety and regulatory compliance responsibilities that are spread around campus would be brought together under the new vice chancellor.

That’s it. That’s all that’s been proposed. No one has specified how big the new research organization might be, but given the relatively small dollar amount mentioned, it’s not likely it could be much more than six new people.

All of the positions created in the initiative could fit (uncomfortably) in a full-sized sedan. That’s not enough to address all the improvements we want to make. How we engage the rest of campus are the details we need to start discussing.

The driving force behind the initiative is a rash of serious safety and protocol incidents that have been near-disasters for UW research. Additionally, grant administration and the reporting UW is required to do on behalf of faculty members has been severely backlogged for years. UW could improve in other areas, like managing industry-sponsored research, career development for grad students and post-docs, and building a more visible presence in Washington. It may be that a new position is the best way to address these shortcomings or it may be best to leave research in the graduate school, or some option yet to be discovered. In any course, it doesn’t seem like the outcome of these discussions would much depend on how the top level of the university was organized.

But are we going to be able to seriously have this discussion? There’s such a rush to beat up this proposal that there’s very little space for anyone to speak positively about any changes. Corradini, whose reputation and record of service to the university is beyond reproach, essentially felt the need to apologize before speaking in support. The website, a self-styled “independent opinion forum for the UW-Madison community” goes further, with one post suggesting that a town hall contained “plants” recruited to speak out in favor of the proposal.

In another post ironically titled “A Call To Speak Up”, the faculty are urged to shed timidity and come out against the proposal. The post is signed CK Adams. Charles Kendall Adams, president of the university from 1892 to 1901, was the author of the famous “Sifting and Winnowing” passage. What seems forgotten is the crucial “fearless” that immediately precedes the phrase.

The discussion over how we want to improve the university, and yes, perhaps make changes at the very top of the organization, is precisely in line with the ideals of fearless sifting and winnowing. Our faculty, staff and students are protected by a combination of tenure, 36.09 and a fierce tradition of shared governance and open discussion. If we have come to a point where members of the university community cannot speak their true thoughts due to real or imagined fear of compromised relations with the administration, then we have far bigger problems than who is the head of the research enterprise. Pseudonymous blogging is not worthy of being signed “Charles Kendall Adams.”

With the lack of details, just as it is hard to see the proposal as a serious improvement to the university, it is equally hard to find much cause for fear. Direction from the top to set research agendas of individual faculty members is always a danger, regardless if it comes from the current graduate school or from a new research office. The same forces that hold back such interference now will always continue to exist, no matter what the top of the organization chart looks like.

We have urgent needs in our research organization. What changes we make or don’t make to address those needs should be an open discussion, free from fear and intimidation. Our researchers are at the forefront of their fields, and a maximized research enterprise isn’t just crucial for the UW, it’s crucial for society. Failure to live up to that responsibility is what we should fear.

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