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.
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)