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In yesterday’s news, our university announced the creation of another new institute/initiative, the Institute for Performing Arts. Note that one of the students depicted there is one of my very best students! So this institute seems like a really great idea. I am wondering how many initiatives and institutes our university has shut down over the years? With the addition of a new institute comes the need for more oversight, supervision, brainpower and inevitably campus space and finances. We understand that campus resources are not unlimited. So is the university making assessments at the margin that the addition of director level staff and hours of work on this new institute are more important than something else we are doing? What is that something else? Does that something else ever/often come under evaluation? Would our university announce the closure of a major initiative or institute?

The incentives for universities are to add, add, add, much in the same way that Department of the Interior administrators have an incentive to add new items to their to do lists and facilities list. The new is catchy, interesting, newsworthy, glamorous. It’s always easy to make the case that “we should” do more of something. It’s far harder to direct resources to maintaining the things we do or even making tradeoffs among the things we do. Hence the National Park System is perpetually in the news for being years behind on its maintenance and with facilities across the country underfunded and crumbling. Ignore the many other reasons for this and possible solutions, but it is simply the case that it is far easier to get support for the construction of a new visitor center, or a new restroom, or new educational initiative, than it is to get support for rebuilding water and sewer systems in 100 year old parks.

In the park service, this “newness fascination” manifests itself with chronically underfunded parks and massive deferred maintenance. In universities the very same thing leads to higher tuition and mission creep. Different symptoms, same cause. To be fair, maybe my university does actually shut down departments and institutes but they just don’t want to draw attention to them, in which case my comments here are to be taken with a grain of salt.

One Response to “Uninvited to Campus Cocktail Parties, Episode 768993028”

  1. sherlock says:

    In related news, the MBTA (Boston transit) came under intense scrutiny for not being able to run due to the snowstorms this year. It came out that there is no database of required maintenance repairs (updating the entire system was estimated by a private company to take $3 billion back in 2009). The federal government also gave the MBTA a $1 million grant several years ago to support the creation of a maintenance database yet it is still not functional. So you have millions (maybe billions? who knows?) in maintenance costs yet nobody knows exactly what they are and how important a specific maintenance would be.

    And of course, they are building fancy new stations….

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