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  • A Dean's Analysis Twenty Years Later
  • Cary Nelson (bio)
Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century annette kolodny Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998 312 pp.

What was immediately apparent from starting to read Kolodny's Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century a generation ago was that administrators do not ordinarily talk this way, at least not in print. The extended personal preface is strikingly honest and insightful, enough so that no administrator who spoke this way would likely keep his or her job. It remains an insightful, reliable, and often enough depressing guide to the competition for resources and the maneuvering for power and influence that occupies a good deal of university time. Kolodny of course did her stint as a dean and then stepped down, but then this level of frankness after the fact is not common either.

The standard career route is unidirectional; one becomes an administrator and never looks back. Very few institutions follow the University of Chicago's practice of recruiting senior administrators from the faculty for limited terms, with the expectation they would return to the faculty. I have watched friends move into administration and, over well less than a decade, lose touch not just with teaching and research but with the values that define a faculty identity at its best.

If the route to a deanship is typically preceded by a stint as department head, that makes matters worse. Kolodny regrets her loss of contact with her colleagues, but the upper-level administrators I have known on multiple campuses who came out of department headships generally welcome curtailed faculty contact. Deans deal mostly with other administrators. They are sheltered from the sometimes sordid underbelly of department life. Department heads, however, mostly see faculty members at their [End Page 903] worst. Either they arrive in your office to plead unreasonably for personal benefits or they are deposited there to confront a disciplinary problem. So it is not the best preparation for a sympathetic or collaborative deanship.

Kolodny came directly from the faculty and retained a certain innocence about university politics as a result. That innocence affects her model for a better future as well. She makes a good argument for the need for greater financial transparency in university finances and full participation in open budgeting. Unfortunately, those faculty members and area administrators with the greatest influence over and access to funding know that secrecy and obfuscation are a better way than transparency to preserve their influence. If anything, we are now even further from the kind of budgeting process Kolodny recommends than we were when the book was published. Indeed administrative preference for secrecy is only one key impediment; faculty willingness to invest time in the budget process is no easier to find even after twenty more years of debilitating budget cuts in public higher education. It is not an activity that the reward system recognizes, and it is a good deal more frustrating than individual research.

Not that Kolodny ended the book on an optimistic note, but it is still bracing to see that both the university reforms and the broad cultural values she advocates, among them equitable income distribution, are very distant prospects indeed. Kolodny makes a strong and articulate defense of tenure, something in which I as well have invested a lot of time and energy. But the continued increase in the percentage of contingent faculty not eligible for tenure, a trend Kolodny decries, has made the defense of tenure irrelevant for many campuses. With only 25 percent of American faculty now tenured or tenure eligible nationally, the battle is largely lost, though there remain battleground states, like Wisconsin, where legislators remain eager to undermine tenure's last strongholds. Of course, the goal of greater faculty participation in campus budgeting is also made far more difficult by increased reliance on contingent faculty.

Some of her arguments have been superseded by developments both within and without the academy. The culture wars' assaults on new humanities initiatives have largely disappeared, at least for now. The claim that a reformed and expanded literature canon threatens the core values...


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