Enter the shark tank, or when academic cultures collide

An American university’s leadership team had an inspired idea: organizing a faculty retreat along the lines of the Shark Tank tv show.  Things did not go well.

What can we learn about this, beyond appreciating the comic aspects, of which there are many?

First, it reminds us that, in media and technology terms, tv culture continues to be fragmented.  Even though Shark Tank is a famous show, many of the administrators and faculty in the Chronicle story had never seen it, nor have I.  (I actually saw a related version of this two months ago, when serving on a grant board, and looking over a K-12 Shark Tank-themed proposal.  Some of the board knew the show and loved the idea, while others had no idea what they were talking about.)

It’s not just the particular show, either, but its genre – reality tv – that divided this population:

[Deborah Kohl, associate dean of the University of Baltimore’s college of arts and sciences] said she and her dean had to look up episodes of Shark Tank before the retreat because they had never seen it. And she didn’t like what she saw. “We were magnificently insulted that we were being asked to approach such a serious set of issues in that particular reality-TV way,” Kohl said.

I wonder if there are political echoes there, given the current American president’s long reality tv show career.
shark ship

Second, the University of Baltimore story offers a small datapoint about clashing models of how higher education should function.  The Shark Tank proponents represent the market-oriented view, which some call the corporate or neoliberal university.  Its opponents argue instead in favor of a non-profit, service-oriented model.  The former happily spoke of ROI and market share for academic programs, along with the necessity of punishing losses:

just like in Shark Tank, there would be clear losers. “Remember that some programs should receive zero investment dollars because they have been targeted for divestment,” read the memo.

The former celebrates competition, while the latter prefers colleagiality.

Third, the story also reminds us of the enormous financial stresses pressing on American higher education.  That’s because the events happened in an atmosphere of cuts:

The meeting — and the juxtaposition of academic management with a glitzy show about cutthroat capitalism — created a small frenzy among faculty members about whether drastic cuts were heading their way. Their worries were somewhat justified. Top administrators have recently discussed, for instance, dissolving the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences…

The $1 million in proposed investment was fake, but the university’s budget challenges are real. And the institution is on the hook to trim “a couple million dollars” from its operating budget by April 1, [Darlene Brannigan Smith, the university’s provost and executive vice president] said.

Fourth, note that the retreat was already not too far removed from the Shark Tank model.  It was an academic program prioritization exercise, wherein faculty and administrators make the case for shifting more or fewer resources to individual programs and departments.  That is precisely a situation where one or more units will be, in fact, “targeted for divestment”.

Have any of my readers watched Shark Tank and can comment?

(thanks to Greg Britton)

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5 Responses to Enter the shark tank, or when academic cultures collide

  1. Robin DeRosa says:

    I just. Can’t. Blergh. Sigh.

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    Is this The Onion?

  3. Alan Levine says:

    Imagine the committee meeting where there was agreement that this was a good idea.

    I was a committee of one who ran a seminar session that borrowed the name of the show and the format of a short pitch of an idea to a panel. But the rules were different for ThesiscTank; there were no losers nor competition nor sharks. http://resnetsem.arganee.world/week-6/

    Still I wonder now if the metaphor was really neccessary. I’ve seen episodes of the show; it’s a lot of posturing and eye rolling, and the power play it presents of people with influence and power versus those who don’t (but maybe aspire.

    Basing an academic decision (or running a government) based on a reality show is a terrible idea.

    Also, you chose your image well (I am hoping it was deliberate); that shark faced submarine is the USS Torsk that sits in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for catching the image.

      No sharks seems like a radically different idea!

      Re: those power plays, maybe I should pay more attention. After all, as we escalate inequality and grow the plutocracy, Shark Tank seems like a major touchstone.

      • Brett B. says:

        I’ll support that impulse to pay more attention to the show, if only for its value in more nuanced critique (and knowing your enemy?)

        While this example still strikes me as a deeply tone-deaf method for interacting with faculty, we should take it as an object lesson in the ways popular series shape cultural thinking more broadly.

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