Saturday, April 11, 2009

Wilkins Micawber, dean and professor of law

Wilkins MicawberAnnual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

I've held the title "dean and professor of law" for nearly a thousand days, long enough to make me chuckle whenever I'm introduced as "the University of Louisville's new law school dean." I take it as a compliment, for I'll make no apologies for juniority.

I spent roughly the first third of those thousand days not having fully grasped what I now consider the most important tactical principle of educational management. If the most important strategic principle is Smoot's Law — namely, that return on student investment is the goal of professional education — then Wilkins Micawber's Principle offers the greatest snippet of tactical wisdom. Translated from the monetary jargon of England before currency decimalization, Micawber's Principle means simply this: live within your means.

Read the rest of this post . . . .I've learned this much in the past year and a half: Never let an economic crisis go to waste. The catastrophic decline in economic fortunes around the world has not spared American higher education, and that disaster gives moral succor to those of us who find our highest calling in doing more for our students with less from our appropriations and endowments.

Piggy bankThe broader economy is witnessing the resurgence of the gleefully frugal: recession-happy people who "happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses" by living a "mantra [of] cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair." This phenomenon “implies a re-emergence of thrift as a value.”

A similar revival should sweep American higher education. Let me be clear about what I mean. I vehemently oppose hatchet jobs on educational budgets. In full accord with Leon Botstein, I believe that a recession is a time for expanding, not contracting, the academy's instructional resources. If you have to freeze something for its own sake, something I'd strongly oppose in any forum where I had a voice, I'd much rather freeze salaries (especially, and exclusively if I could, at the high end) than hiring.

But not all spending is equal. No less than private companies, universities are susceptible to what Herman Holtz, 100 Ways to Boost Your Firm's Profitability, has called "Taj Mahalitis." Ambitious, financially marginal organizations can easily fall victim to the urge to splurge, to present themselves to customers and competitors alike in grandiose fashion.

Peacock's tailFrom law porn to lavish meals that feed no one besides our highest-paid employees, law schools have many ways to violate Micawber's Principle. The trick — admittedly so much more readily described than performed — is to separate types of spending that advance legitimate educational goals from those that don't.

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