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GUEST LETTER: The UA Strategic Plan lacks everything that would make it stand out

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Before proceeding any further with the UA Strategic Plan, I would urge everyone involved to read Gaye Tuchman’s 2009 book "Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University" (and for an added bonus, especially for its vicious dismantling of the empty, and yet still-with-us, term “excellence,” pick up Bill Readings’s marvelous 1996 "The University in Ruins"). 

If you don’t have time to give "Wannabe U" a glance, let me summarize Tuchman’s set up and punch line: facing virtually identical problems of declining public support (monetary and otherwise), all universities are confronted with the challenge of how to distinguish themselves from their competitors in order to attract the best faculty and students (and presumably, also administrators), the largest share of grants and contracts and the most donations from alumni and other “stakeholders.” 

And what is the mechanism that universities use to produce this distinctiveness? Emulation! That’s right. Every university facing this common problem identifies a “peer” group (actual or aspirational) and then sets about to replicate the “best practices,” matrices of “excellence” or whatever other catch phrases capture the “success” of the peers. 

The present UA “strategic” plan fairly drips with this kind of approach. There is virtually nothing in it that could not have been written on day one of the exercise and would therefore have saved a lot of time and energy for the much-touted nearly 10,000 “stakeholders” who have participated thus far. 

The “plan” reads as though it was composed by using one of those refrigerator-magnet word-salad games — if the game had been designed by a certain 'Corpspeak Buzzwords, Inc'. It certainly hits all the usual targets: land grant, retention, jobs, economic growth, unique geographic and intellectual positions and critical and creative thinking.

And then throws in a couple of new(ish) wrinkles: disruptors, Fourth Industrial Revolution. All very inspiring.

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I am not blaming those who have participated up to this point for this bland product. The problem is not with individuals but rather with the boundaries within which they are set to work. The horizons of imagination on display here are woefully impoverished. 

Clearly, the mission articulated was not to truly distinguish the UA from other universities (peer or otherwise) but rather to do a bit more of what we (and almost everyone else) has been doing all along — thus the stultifying, incremental metrics of “progress” and “success.” 

The notion of becoming truly distinctive is terrifying to those attached to the status quo. It would risk alienating all of the constituencies (always marked by the flattering term “stakeholders”) that have at least allowed us to limp along so far. 

And yet, an authentic strategic plan should be a call for helping to recuperate the unique role and status of higher education in society: a key voice on the most compelling issues of our time. I’m old enough to recall when university presidents were important voices in public debate, whether local, regional or national. Where are those voices now, and what is the basis for their legitimate claim on the public’s attention? Most have little to say or are so afraid of offending potential “stakeholders” (i.e. steak holders/donors) that they say nothing.

What does all of this have to do with a strategic plan for the UA? In Tucson, in Arizona, in the Southwest border region, in the U.S. and on the planet, we are facing so many crises that simply doing more of the same as a university is an abject abdication of responsibility. A truly strategic plan would be naming and claiming these crises and organizing our future activities to address them. From climate change, to militarism/war/terrorism (truly defined), to a future jobless (but not, please note, work-less or worthless) world and to the undeniable, unsustainable clash between endless economic “growth” and the survival of the planet, we and other universities should be playing a leading a truly innovative role.

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To take just two examples from the present “plan”:

1) Jobs — So much of the “plan” purports to be aimed at preparing our graduates (or disruptors, if you prefer) for the wonderful world of work. And yet, given the trends in outsourcing, automation and the increasing role of financialization (which yields profits for a very few without production or the need for workers), many jobs have disappeared, or will disappear quite soon, and are never coming back. The few jobs that are likely to remain will be either soul- or planet-destroying; the former because most jobs (beyond providing subsistence) contribute nothing of significance to society, the latter because they perpetuate the ubiquitous, rapacious economic system. Wouldn’t a truly strategic plan begin to grapple with this reality rather than deny and cover it up with word salad? 

This future does not mean that work itself will be unnecessary. It will rather have to be reorganized to meet people's actual needs: food, shelter, clothing, education (of all sorts), health care, entertainment (rather than distraction), etc. What would a curriculum (and education, more generally) to prepare students for this essential work entail? Wouldn’t such a curriculum distinguish the UA? Wouldn’t it accord with both our land grant mission and our unique setting in the borderlands? Wouldn’t it require true critical and creative thinking? Wouldn’t it align our practices with our putative values of living sustainably with the planet (rather than the stated goal in the “plan” of continuing to abet toxic economic growth for growth’s sake)?

2) Health — The “plan” certainly has laudable goals here, if the aim is to be on the cutting edge of research to maximize research grants and contracts and advance knowledge. But distinctive? No other universities are pursuing precision medicine or understanding the brain or immune systems? Even the quite reasonable objective of expanding access to care (with its weird allusion to veterinary care) fails to grapple with the most fundamental problem of the current system: Medical care in the U.S. is controlled and rationed by for-profit pharmaceutical, hospital and insurance corporations. What would a truly strategic plan have to say about that issue? Where are the strategies to help change the public discourse so that the tremendous “advances” that are hoped for would become much more universally available? What kinds of teaching, research and learning would this require?

Virtually every element of the plan should be given the same kind of scrutiny in order to become “strategic,” relevant and distinctive. In fact, a “strategic” plan would not only be anticipating this future landscape but, as the product of an educational system, should be proactively (rather than always reactively) engaged in a large-scale pedagogical project to help shape the public discourse around problem formulation and solutions.

Much of this will undoubtedly sound nonsensical, i.e., as the literal embodiment of the opposite of common sense, which constantly tells us that grappling even with humanity’s most critical, impending problems can only be approached through tiny, incremental steps away from the present path. And yet, as the problems have become more perilous, and as more of the planet’s population is under threat from war, environmental catastrophe and worsening conditions of wealth inequality, the voices and roles for universities have become less and less audible and relevant. Perhaps a real and realistic “strategic” plan could begin to remedy that and make lives better for the many UA stakeholders. Just a thought.


  Dr. Marv Waterstone is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Geography and Development. 




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