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Demanding the impossible

Apparently, the Faculty Senate picked the wrong day to ask for my input on a new initiative from the state legislature and board of regents. Below, find my response to this question:

2. Given increased enrollment and smaller budgets, how can we maintain and improve student success and retention?

We cannot. Improving student success and retention — especially when we are planning to let in more students, which necessarily means letting in more students who are less qualified than current students — requires more resources, not fewer resources. Even in industry, the efficiencies of large scale production have limits (the law of diminishing returns), and producing educated citizens is much more resource-intensive than producing widgets. The non-stop demands (throughout the country, not just in our state) that public university faculty “do more with less” have been going on for years: If there truly ever was a time when increases in efficiency, redirection of resources to teaching from less central tasks, and other transformations of how we do things could improve student education even while reducing budgets, that time has long since passed. I can think of several ways I could improve my teaching this semester — more frequent feedback on smaller assignments, for example. But since I worked 36 hours just in the first three days of this week, and don’t foresee working any less in the remaining two days and will also work over the weekend, I cannot imagine where I would find the time and energy to create and produce meaningful feedback on additional assignments.

The board of regents and state legislature can demand whatever they want — they can demand that faculty alter time and space, suspend gravity, and invent perpetual motion machines — but we cannot meet demands for what is simply impossible. When someone insists that you do something impossible, the only correct and sane answer is, “No.” Any response to their demands other than honestly telling them how and why their demands are impossible would simply reinforce their deluded conviction that they can create the results they want by simply insisting that the people and institutions they have power over produce them. Real-world results cannot be produced by fact-ignoring fiat, and hard problems cannot be solved by insisting that someone lower down the totem pole solve them — especially when that insistence is accompanied by a reduction in the resources available to carry out the work needed to fix those problems. Even the attempt to meet these impossible demands would be a gross disservice to all those additional students they expect us to educate with ever-shrinking resources, and to existing students whose education will be diminished by resources (and faculty members) spread ever more thinly.

I have no objection to performance-based funding. In fact, the strangest thing about this situation is that the concept of “performance-based funding” could not be more clear about the logical and causal connection between funding and performance — yet somehow the state legislature and board of regents keep insisting on more performance with less funding. It is a fundamental principle of ethics (my field of study) that “ought implies can,” which simply means that one cannot be obligated to do something that is not in one’s power to do. Surely at some level the powers that be must be aware of the self-contradictory nature of their demands, and that those demands cannot be met — but if they are not aware, that does not obligate us to nevertheless try to meet those demands. If we are obligated to do anything, it is to make them aware that their demands *are* impossible, and to explain why. In other words, we are obligated to educate them — which, after all, is our calling.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Tim Harris
    2011/10/31 at 12:56 pm

    Good for you.

  1. 2011/10/30 at 11:18 pm

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