One of our colleagues surprised me a couple of weeks ago with the information that our glorious university loses around a $100,000 daily. At this rate, and considering that the endowment is currently in the $300 million range, we will not survive more than five years at best. Some of the unhappy signals are already there: the end of the classics program, the employment freeze and the layoffs, the drastic cuts on part-timers, and more recently, the decision to keep all wages at their previous --already low-- level. (Regrettably, this colleague of ours who teaches sections twenty times the size of mine, or larger, and serves in more committees than I could afford to remember, ends up like myself with a zero raise: death makes all mortals humble in the face of God.) Considering that the finances of this university are at an abysmal state --something that only reminds me of the Syrian economy at its best, but with no Lebanon to terrorize and suck a surplus from-- I'm dismayed at how lightly academic problems are perceived in conjunction with their economic implications. A case in point was our last departmental meeting (which I must wriggly admit, I only attended after intensive pressures from the Chair) where, once more, the issue of the Core came into being, only to be discussed in the all too familiar language of how much we need the Greeks and Romans and how much we love them: it's the herd mentality of departmental politics über alles.

In fact, the real issue at stake here is to figure out the economic cost of the Core, and whether, assuming it proves too costly, it's still worth maintaining when the university is going downhill financially. How can we then assess the real costs of a Core like ours? Even a casual glance at the recently released Fall 2001 schedule reveals that the 101-102 combination takes off at least half of the department's offerings, so that the other half is divided between the senior seminars and the graduate courses, which is odd, considering that it's in fact the last two categories that ought to define what historical research is all about. Moreover, since the dwindling finances of the university mean much less reliance on a small army of slave laborers, there are little chances that the undergraduate and graduate seminars will get the attention they deserve. Actually, with the Core remaining as it is, and with the loss of devoted history majors, there is little hope that anything would get better in terms of original offerings at the upper levels. We're all doomed, it seems, to do the 101-102 combo each semester whether we like it or not, so forget about imagination and the longue durée: it's all about small attention spans. Vive la courte durée!

The Core thus seems to be the pièce de résistance that is clogging all efforts, but it primarily needs to be assessed in terms of its costs on both sides of the equation. The costs are indeed minimal from an instructor's point of view. No doubt everyone loves the Greeks and Romans, but the repetitive nature of the 101-102 combo, and the fact that they are mainly covered from text-books (another of those strange American idiomatic expressions: since a book is by definition a "text," what's text-book supposed to mean?) that hardly change over the years, plus the long nature of the surveyed periods implies that we're not looking much for a great historical accuracy but only for minimalist points of reference, all such factors push for a low investment from an instructor's point of view, so that even the tedious fact of correcting exams and papers could be left to teaching assistants whenever needed. Similarly, those courses represent little investment from the part of the students: the excuse here is that they're meant to be introductory, hence they require no work at all.

But someone must be paying the bill, and that's of course, the administration. In fact, to keep up with all three sectors alive --the Core, undergraduate seminars, and graduate seminars-- the university had to hire, under the now defunct ancien régime, an army of slave laborers paid slightly above $1,000 per section, in order to maintain that bulky Core, and so that at least part of the faculty gets focused on the upper level courses, out of which all programs derive their prestige and raison d'être. To be sure, there was a blend of cynicism and humanism (the two always go well together) in such arrangements. For one, students were shielded from the upper division courses, and the instructors protected such courses from the barbarism of the majority of our students on the basis that they're unable to handle such sophisticated material unless they complete the Core first. However, the ideology of the Core is that it's offered to keep up with the liberal arts traditions of western civilization, and indirectly to some kind of Jesuit mission attached to it.

But when we add all three sectors, in addition to other course requirements, such as the writing intensive courses, freshman seminars (with a numerus clausus of 20), and, last but not least, the venerable honors program, the cost is enormous, and in the old régime it sucked a great deal of the hospital's $20 million or so surplus. In fact, besides the sheer number of all those courses and offerings, the system is meant to be exclusivist in the first place. Like medieval feudalism, it's a system that operates by not giving courses that could be open to everyone. Thus, even though the Core does not in principle forbid a student from moving directly to the upper level courses, still acts as a distraction for at least two semesters, so that an upper level course is kept for a remote future, assuming that it will ever come. We thus end up with a de facto system of privileges, which is costly to maintain considering all its requirements of special courses and the like.

The bottom line is this. Like the Core or hate it, the university will not be able to maintain all three sectors functioning properly in their current configuration, and considering that a trimming of the Core would be the most obvious solution (not to mention the trimming of departments), it would be better for us as a department to state our objectives more cogently without the usual protectionist attitude that is oblivious to financial matters; or else, some of us at least might end up unemployed. (I might have to seek permanent residency in Rome, assuming that an Italian soprano will be generous enough to fund my legal and economic research.) To minimize cost, the optimal solution would be to open all courses to all students, which in practice means cutting the Core to one course only per department (How about a History 100: "History for Dummies"?); then abolish other feudal privileges (that reminds me all too well of the timar system of the Ottoman Empire): the honors program, writing intensive courses (all courses should be reading and writing intensive), and the Freshman seminars, and I'm sure I've forgotten many other privileges, ranks, and seigniorial dues and the like. Economists know all too well that privileges, hierarchies, and protectionist attitudes only increase the transaction costs and thus limit access to particular commodities and services.

Our courses in their complexity look in between the Italian telephone system and the Ottoman Empire exploding on the eve of the First World War. They therefore need to be simplified greatly to cut on transaction costs. All hierarchies, privileges, special programs, etc., constitute enormous transaction costs, and only reducing them to their bare minimum would help our university survive.

 

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