Ideas – The Psychological Currency of the University

By: Jeremy Teitelbaum

Although I know that it’s dangerous to draw too many macroeconomic conclusions from my own personal experience, everywhere I look I see evidence of deflation – an economic state of falling wages and prices.

The news in October that the core rate of inflation was only 0.6 percent, the lowest ever measured, was one authoritative piece of evidence pointing in that direction. Walking into the Borders Bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago to find discount banners advertising a store-closing clearance sale was a much more public and visible sign. Hearing friends’ and family members’ painful stories of lost jobs, salary reductions, furloughs, and stalled home sales make up the most sobering evidence.

But from a purely professional point of view, the most worrying sign of deflation’s grip in my day-to-day life is the deflationary mindset I find affecting me and my colleagues at the University.

Just like inflation, deflation creates a set of expectations in people’s minds about the future that profoundly affects their behavior. Inflation tells people to rush – to buy now, spend now, borrow now – because the price of everything will be higher tomorrow. Deflation tells people to stall – to wait to spend, delay borrowing – because the price of everything will be lower tomorrow. In a time of deflation, hiding money under your mattress becomes a reasonable investment strategy.

What concerns me is how the deflationary mindset spills over from the economic realm to the psychological. We rely on the motivation of highly talented, creative, and self-directed students and faculty to accomplish anything. One feature of such highly talented and creative people is that they are always thinking of new and exciting projects for which they need new equipment, new conferences, additional faculty, new courses …

This appetite can drive administrators crazy, and I think that to people with a background in business it can seem completely irresponsible. I see it as a key indicator of health in a university; and what makes my job as a dean interesting is the challenge of keeping the flow of ideas active, when only a few of them can be actively supported.

When the flow starts to dry up, and faculty and students stop asking for things, that’s a sign that they’re feeling deflated, in the sense of being “brought low in spirit.” Economic deflation is bad enough, but psychological deflation is a particular threat to a university.

Back in 2002, Stanley Fish described this kind of deflation in a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Let the Bad Times Roll.” He talked about how the economic crisis of that moment changed his life as dean – namely, it got easier, because the answer to every question and request was “no.” He even saw his calendar open up and the pressure from department heads and faculty for resources drop away:

As a general rule, people come to the dean’s office either to petition or to complain; but if the word is out that there are no resources, no one will expect anything; and if no one expects anything no one will be disappointed; and if no one has been disappointed, no one will complain ….

Fortunately, we’re not there yet. One recent e-mail from a department head proposing the expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars on an extremely worthy project started out like this:

Recognizing that this probably is the worst possible time to be looking for money for any sort of project, … nevertheless …

Hooray for “nevertheless!” Despite the constant foreboding references to next fiscal year, the number of meetings that end with “let’s see …” and various confining administrative restrictions imposed at all levels to prevent us from accidentally overspending our budgets, people are still looking for ways to improve the institution. Those people are doing their share to fight deflation, and I hope they keep their ideas coming – one day someone is going to get a huge surprise when we can finally start saying “yes” again.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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