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All in a day’s work: from bad-news U of M regents meeting to Showboat show

Journalists’ days sometimes veer from one crisis to another. Our days also bring “strings” of information and odd juxtapositions, offering context and “color” when we least expect it. Tuesday was such a day for me.

Journalists’ days sometimes veer from one crisis to another. Our days rarely go by without learning something new or interesting, whether we’re on duty or off. Even when we’re “off,” many of us find it difficult to shut down our reporter brains. Our days also bring “strings” of information and odd juxtapositions, offering context and “color” when we least expect it.

Tuesday was such a day for me.   

In the morning, I tweeted about a board meeting where University of Minnesota regents and the president bemoaned the “tough medicine” the U is swallowing in an era of reduced state funding. The 2010-11 operating budget calls for $104.9 million in “unit reductions/resource adjustments” to deal with a shortfall of $152 million in state aid. Tuition increases are making up the rest.      

By Tuesday evening I found myself on the U’s Showboat as the guest of a longtime friend who is an alumnus and donor. The College of Liberal Arts hosted a dessert reception and performance of a musical version of “Triumph of Love.”

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Where’s my pen?
I was not “on duty,” so I did not bring a notebook or a fancy mobile phone so I could tweet what I was seeing and hearing. I did not take notes as College of Liberal Arts Dean Jim Parente gave an entertaining introduction to the life of playwright Pierre Marivaux and this particular work. I wish I could have located a pen in my tightly packed purse when Parente started thanking CLA donors and vigorously espousing the liberal arts as the “foundation” of all learning. Because I was a guest, I did not collar Parente before my friend and I disembarked.

As readers of The Next Degree know, some of the worst-tasting budget medicine is being consumed in the College of Liberal Arts. Fifty-two tenure and tenure-track faculty vacancies from retirements and resignations went unfilled starting in 2009, and up to 10 more vacancies won’t be filled in the coming year, Associate Dean Gary Oehlert explained recently in an email. About 145 course sections will be dropped as well in the U’s largest college.

The Regents Policy on Faculty Tenure says tenure and tenure-track faculty cannot be laid off without the university first declaring a financial emergency, he says.

While no layoffs of these faculty members are planned, Oehlert and others are worried about losing top-flight people and being unable to recruit replacements. He did not give a breakdown of resignations vs. retirements but offered some context on the patterns of vacancies.  

“Resignation usually means that some top faculty member has been recruited away to another university, so those folks getting recruited usually are concentrated in our best departments and/or the most popular majors,” he wrote. “In other words, resignations tend to come from places that you can’t afford to lose people.”

The exodus of retiring baby boomers is a concern, too.

“Retirement is a natural stage of the career, and they happen across the college and university,” he said. “However, there are some departments that are in or about to begin major generational change; these departments could also be vulnerable. (This generational change is the result of lots of people who began their careers in the late ’60s/early ’70s when universities were in a major expansion phase; those folks are retiring now.)”

Brain drain is a topic for another post.

While the budget cloud hangs over the university and the College of Liberal Arts, it occurs to me that the Showboat offers an escape route even though it’s literally moored on the Mississippi River on St. Paul’s Harriet Island. The fresh-faced actors and singers in “Triumph of Love” remind patrons of the U’s vibrant theater department. The musical’s slapstick antics and singing can take anyone away, however briefly, from the bottom-line blues.