Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Town Hall Meeting

This morning I went to a 'Town Hall Meeting' where they discussed the university's plans for the future and its response to lower funding from the state.  I brought along my laptop and papers to grade.  I am glad that did.  The ratio of propaganda to information was incredibly high.  I was able to get a lot of work done while they ran a movie full of self-congratulatory fluff, and while the university president gave a similar presentation, most of which was reading stuff verbatim off PowerPoint slides, which any decent public speaker knows not to do.

During the question-and-answer session, I asked something that I had been wondering for a while and was related to the topic.  Several years ago, the state offered to privatize our university, handing over all the state property and ending restrictions in exchange for ending the state support.  Several of the professors in the Econ department think that this would have been a great idea; it would have given us hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property and allowed us to dramatically boost tuition, which would have easily covered the lack of funding.  If they had taken the offer, we would not be facing the budget cuts we are today; we would be independent of the state budget.

So I brought up the topic and asked "If the offer was given today, would you take it?"

He never answered the question, of course, but his answer was instructive anyway.  Last time the offer was made, his response was a strong and definite 'no'.  But this time, he did not rule out this possibility.  He talked about how the state funding was 12% of our budget, but he also said "The source of our funding does not change our mission, goals, and character."  It sure seemed to me that he was implying "If they offer us a good enough deal, we might take it."

I still think that the probability of making the switch is low, however, for one important reason: ranking tables.  The president has placed a great deal of importance on the goal of reaching a specific rank in the list of public universities.  He wants to make us a "Top X" school, and we are pretty close to meeting that target.  If we switched to being a private school, then we would lose that rank.  We would be moving into a much more competitive league, where our ranking is a lot lower.  So for that fact alone, the administration will probably cling to 'public' status even though privatization would likely make us a better university.

Now to shift topics a little and discuss questions and communication:

My question was the only one that was an actual request for information.  All of the other 'questions' were really just a form of begging or whining.  It was obvious from the question what the questioner wanted and what to say to appease that person.  And the president, like a good politician, immediately started to make the appropriate soothing noises*.

I was actually quite old before I realized that most people do not view information gathering as the purpose of communication.  Most communication, and especially most conversations, are about playing social status games and signaling information about yourself.  The president was accustomed to dealing with such things.  About 80% of the question-and-answer session was of the form:

Q: I really care about X.  What are you doing to help it?
A: I agree that X is important to the university.

I don't know what value people obtain from this process, but it seems that they do value it.  I guess they think that reminding him that people care about X will be a useful form of lobbying and might help shift money their way.

He tried to answer my question the same way, but was handicapped because he did not know what I wanted to hear.  He may have assumed that I was afraid of privatization; he took care to assure me that any privatization would not damage the quality of the university.  I was not worried about that, but the answer told me that it might actually be a possibility.

This leads to an important lesson:  If you actually want to extract information from someone, reveal as little information as possible about who you are and what you want.  If they know these things, they will simply repeat what they think you want to hear.  But if you ask a factual question without betraying your allegiance (this is harder than you think; ideology affects language in a lot of subtle ways) you may actually obtain some knowledge.  The person may be forced to rely on facts when they cannot pull out the appropriate spin, or, more likely, they will generate a more informative kind of spin.

*Of course, I am not sure if they were actually 'appropriate' or effective.  In response to somebody whining about staff stress as a result of budget cuts, he recommended walking around campus and admiring its beauty.  I was immediately reminded of this Dilbert cartoon.

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