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AFS Review: Essays

Advice from the Dark Side, Part 2

Thursday, September 29, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Mark Workman

--Editors’ Note: At the 2014 annual meeting in Santa Fe, the AFS sponsored a session titled “Advice From the Dark Side: University Administrators Help Us Strategize Growth,” featuring presentations by four folklore colleagues who are or were in positions of university leadership. Here we present the second of two of those presentations, by Mark Workman, Professor of English and Folklore, Senior Honors Fellow, and Former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of North Florida. The first, by Sandy Rikoon of the University of Missouri, appeared last week.

I know many of you are familiar with Walter Benjamin’s image of the angel of history who blows with his back turned toward the future as he looks back in horror at the past he is leaving behind. If I use this metaphor to describe my own trajectory as an administrator it is not because I look back in horror—although I have observed and on occasion participated in some regrettably adversarial conflicts that were not pretty—but because I never really aspired to go up the administrative chain in the first place, and yet indeed I did. By the time the wind stopped blowing me into my own future twenty-two years had elapsed, including eight as department chair, two as special assistant to the president, four as dean of arts and sciences, and eight as provost and vpaa.

So I have seen and indeed dwelt on the dark side, and knowing it as I do I would like to address two preliminary questions before I speak to the issue of engendering or sustaining folklore programs: what makes the dark side dark, and is it uniformly so? As department chair and even as dean I often felt like Milton who took it upon himself to explain God’s ways to man, but I was myself perceived largely as a fellow mortal who was protective of the faculty whom he represented, as an advocate for their initiatives, and as subject to pain and suffering as they when those resources were not forthcoming.

That changed when I became provost. It did so, I believe, for two primary reasons. The first was that I was conscious of having to prioritize—whether I liked it or not—the needs of the institution over the needs of individual faculty or departments or colleges. And the second was that the substantial resources over which I had control—at its high point on the order of 80 to 90 million dollars—derived from so many different revenue streams with so many different constraints on how they could be utilized that it always looked as if I was demonically withholding desperately needed funds from those who legitimately yearned for them and who saw only a very large aggregate pot of money but not the strings that were attached to it.

Furthermore, in my capacity as provost it was my job to exercise the will of the statewide board of governors in assuring that the academic mission of the university was being conducted in as efficient a manner as possible. You all know the seemingly crass metrics by which such efficiency is measured:  retention rates, graduation rates, cost per degree, and so on. Nor is this efficiency viewed exclusively at the university level. On the contrary, this scrutiny has been extended down to the level of individual programs, and on occasion even down to the level of the individual faculty member.

Here is where my personal narrative bears directly upon the issue we are here to address today. At the time I stepped down from my position as provost I was co-chair, along with the provost at the University of Central Florida, of a statewide committee charged with the responsibility of reviewing the productivity, redundancy, and viability of every program offered by each of the 11 (now 12) state universities. Those that were producing too few graduates, or those that were deemed to be duplicative of other programs in the state, or those that were deemed to be unreasonably expensive, were flagged as such, and while such flags were not determinative, since that would have usurped the authority of local boards of trustees, they were perceived to be at best an unwelcome stigma and at worst a virtual kiss of death. 

This same kind of scrutiny is focused not only on existing programs but also upon those that are being considered for implementation. And this scrutiny is conducted under the watchful and skeptical eye of the gubernatorially appointed Board of Governors as well as the newly reelected governor himself, Rick Scott, who controversially announced that the last thing Florida needs is more anthropologists. One can only imagine what he might have said had he been aware of our own largely misunderstood and thus easily targeted discipline.

I do not mean to suggest that, under circumstances such as the ones I have described in the state university system in Florida, existing or potential folklore programs are doomed. What I am saying is that those who wish to sustain, enhance, or create such programs must be able to provide compelling evidence that the numbers of students who are or will be graduating from them are significant, that their prospects for employment are real, and that the programs are being or can be delivered with appropriately proportional faculty resources.  Nor should it be assumed that endowed funds can make up for the lack of a recurring line item in a university budget, since endowments typically generate only 5% of their value annually in operational funds. Circumstances in private colleges and universities might be different, but I believe that even with the cessation of the recession circumstances everywhere call more for sober realism than for cockeyed optimism.

That is the parting advice I will offer from a provostial perspective. For myself, like Dante’s pilgrim who, midway through his life’s journey awoke to find himself in a dark wood after wandering off from the straight path, I am happy to report that I have finally returned to the light and will be bringing my career to closure in the same proud capacity with which it began, as a professor of English and Folklore.

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