Shelley: USM as a corporation, decoding the Direction Package

Perspectives

What is a “direction package”? If you are a student or faculty at USM, you might be forgiven for not being familiar with the phrase, which comes from a discourse foreign to the academy, namely, the discourse of the business world, of the corporation. I attended the first presentation of the USM’s new Direction Package at Hannaford Hall on Sept. 24 and based on the contextual clues I picked up there, I think I can take a stab at providing a definition of “direction package” for those Free Press readers who were unable to attend, or for those who were there but nonetheless remain mystified:

A direction package is a PowerPoint drenched in corporate newspeak [Is there any other kind of PowerPoint? – Ed.] that officially encodes USM’s revised vision, charter, mission, values, and intent (“intent” includes actual concrete strategies and tactics), compiled by a shadowy and evasive (not to mention student- and faculty-free) “Work Group,” under the direction of an ex-paper company “effectiveness” expert, in response to murky directives from the Board of Trustees (aka BOT, a rather wonderful acronym).

Or maybe not so murky. Here are some of the Board’s directives, taken directly from the UMaine System’s “Mission Excellence” (speaking of corporate newspeak) website:

1e, Align Funding with Performance-Based Outcomes, and 1f, Add System Outcomes Performance Measures to Current Metrics: These two closely related directives seem designed to channel funding to areas that meet certain performance metrics, and to specify certain new metrics designed to measure University performance relative to the needs of Maine’s business community.

II. Employer Guarantee: Maine’s Workforce Needs Met by University Graduates: The blatant header of Section II strongly implies a guarantee to Maine’s business community that the University system will be responsive to its demands in terms of churning out human capital made-to-order. Directives in this section include, Form Additional Business Partnerships and Collaborations and Align Academic and Certificate Program Development with Workforce Needs – in other words, design curriculum to meet the employment needs of Maine businesses.

III. 21st Century Educational Delivery: Online, Year-Round Operations, Productivity, and Resources Focused on Mission: The Section III header describes a future university system in which faculty, like Wall Street bankers, are given financial “bonuses” for meeting certain performance benchmarks (Directive III.d says plainly, “Link Academic Outcomes and Incentives,” and reads in part, “provide financial incentives and rewards to faculty and Universities for achievement of academic goals”), and in which more online classes are made available to increase market share among untapped demographics (Directive III.b: Provide More Online and Hybrid Programs for Working Adults).

Once unveiled, the Direction Package itself proved to be an almost comically perfect exercise in Orwellian obfuscation, filled with words and phrases so vague and abstract that not only were they mostly indecipherable, they actually seemed to repel meaning. USM’s proposed new “Vision” statement is: “Helps its students and communities experience today and imagine tomorrow,” which seems to position USM somewhere between Disney World and Bud Light. But, in true Orwellian fashion, the vapidity of the Direction Package’s business jargon also serves to provide cover for the more insidious aspects of the Direction Package agenda.

One proposed “Charter” revision would charge USM with utilizing “other modes of instructional delivery besides face-to-face, residential instruction” to better serve commuter students. This means, of course, increasing the number of classes offered online, removing education from its social context, while, not incidentally, drastically lowering the price of “product” delivery. Ironically, the community-destroying effects of moving communications and interactions online were very much in evidence during the Direction Package meeting, as interested groups on other campuses who had joined the meeting “remotely”—we could see them sitting silently, like ghosts, on a big projection screen behind President Kalikow—were mostly excluded from the discussion or silenced by technical difficulties.

Equally creepy, under the  “Values” section was a list of bland individual terms (“collegiality,” “respect,” “positive and supportive work environment”) that collectively seem a rebuke to faculty protests, and prompt us to imagine a university whose professors are required by rule to maintain positive attitudes and keep their mouths shut. As an example of a company whose employees personify a strong set of brand values, Dave Stevens, the UMaine System’s Executive Director of Organizational Effectiveness, cited the unfailing cheeriness of LL Bean employees—instantly summoning a mental picture of “greeters” in the lobby of Luther Bonney.

Most chilling of all was the “Strategies” section, where the concrete policy changes that will result from the Direction Package exercise are just starting to be sketched out:

Leverage USM’s 4 portals to student success (Gorham, LAC, Portland, Virtual): This item asks us to accept without question the elevation of “Virtual” to the same conceptual level as USM’s three physical campuses.

Attract and retain faculty and staff who instill ***active learning concepts throughout all aspects of the university: Whatever “active learning” means (not to mention the three asterisks), this is a deliberate clue for faculty about what kind of professors will be in favor at the “new” USM. (Hint: It’s not the  inactive kind.)

Recognize, celebrate, and nurture a faculty and staff engaged with the university and community which will drive economic development and cultural enrichment through intentional and systemic involvement with community organizations, employers, alumni and donors: Another clue seems to suggest that future career success for faculty might be dependent on forming business partnerships and driving “development.”

Routinely share institutional data and solicit feedback that is incorporated into data driven strategic decisions: “Data-driven strategic decisions” means more  decisions based solely on abstract figures, decisions which are increasingly divorced from the deeper and more subtle realities of the university as an academic community and a nexus of lived experiences.

Foster a culture of accountability to deliver on the promise of student success: The term “culture of accountability” means a “culture” where job security (or the lack of job security) depends on performance metrics, though in the case of a university, this would entail the statistical measurement of things that by their very nature cannot be measured (e.g., the expansion of a student’s mind, or the sparking of a student’s curiosity).

At the meeting it was abundantly clear that the meta-language of USM—the way USM talks about itself, both internally and externally—has been completely overrun with the language and discourse features of the corporate business world. As USM is overrun by corporate discourse, it cannot help also being overrun by the consumerist, corporate values that are embedded in corporate discourse: values such as profit, efficiency, and enforced collegiality. What is being marginalized—and perhaps irrevocably lost—are the traditional academic values of fearless intellectual freedom and free inquiry; the value of moving slowly, or even wasting time exploring dead ends; the value of having a protected cultural space where personal development can occur, a respite from the seemingly omnipresent demands of consumer culture; and the value of the face-to-face physical community of the college campus, built on real human relationships.

If you are a student, staff, or faculty of USM, you should make your voice heard. Go to the Direction Package Feeback webpage, and let the Board and the administration know how you feel about the corporatization of the university, and the concurrent eradication of academic values:  http://www.usm.maine.edu/directionpackage/feedback

USM

3 thoughts on “Shelley: USM as a corporation, decoding the Direction Package

  1. Well, despite a “direction,” apparently some good teaching must be happening at USM, because Phillip’s article is clear, cogent, and a pleasure to read. Our students are so smart, so dedicated, and deserve so much more than a vapid “Direction Package.”

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