The University as Crunchyco

So the phone rings, and it’s my mentor and old friend Lars Abraham, eightysomething Professor of English Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“Lars!” I said, feeling bad for not having called him since the late 20th century. “How are you doing? How’s everything at Seattle State these days?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. “Budget cuts . . . you know, state support for state universities is down everywhere.”

[Lars didn’t actually link to that story as he was talking to me. But I could hear it in his tone of voice.]

“That’s no problem at UTA,” I said, “we’re Mavericks. We’re an emerging Tier One institution.”

“We are trying for Tier One, also, but right now we are more like Tier Three-and-a-Half,” said Lars. “Really, ‘state’ schools have just become private universities with better parking. We got an e-mail from our Provost saying that the English Department must find some private funding, or we will lose our graduate program and our major, and we will all be reduced to teaching five sections of grammar and composition to freshmen, in which briar patch I was born, so it affrights not me.”

“Well, you’ve got to get your brand out there, Lars. Like UTA: our brand is UNBRANDED™. Get it? Our identity is that we can’t be pinned down to an identity. That way, everyone knows exactly what to expect from us: the unexpected.”

“Such postmodernism makes my head spin.”

“Lars, you see, you’ve got to re-invent English so that you tap into the market. Serve the new generation of tech-savvy visual and virtual learners! Majors will flock to the English department once they see how the communications skills we teach will make them desirable to corporations.”

“Tim,” growled Lars, “businesses will keep hiring business majors even if English majors learn to stand on their heads and Twitter out of their tuchus.”

“But, Lars –”

“And for another thing, I am too old to re-invent English. Do we need more vowels? Am I supposed to add a fifteenth line to the sonnet? English is what it is, as you infants say.”

“OK, keep teaching sonnets, Lars. But you have to admit, you need to sell sonnets to the discerning student consumer. Studying literature teaches you to learn how to learn, an essential skill for earning a living in today’s business world!”

“Literature has nothing to do with earning a living. Literature is what makes living worth living. Though with my prostate, I sometimes have doubts.”

“Well, maybe your administration can raise some money for the humanities.”

“No, they are leaving it up to the departments to come up with marketing schemes. Universities are like junk-food companies anymore, Tim. Did I tell you about my nephew Sven, who used to work for Crunchyco? They would pit one division against another. Pretzels would fight popcorn for market share. They were told to ‘cannibalize’ the other units’ sales. The suits would go to Sven and say, ‘Sven, potato chips are a drug in the market. If you don’t turn your department around, we’re going to sell you to Frito-Lay.’ That is what liberal-arts departments are told now, Tim.”

“I’m glad UTA isn’t like that. It does sound bad.”

“It is worse than it sounds. At least Sven is an MBA, a smart man, my nephew. He knew how to sell potato chips. What our administration is doing is like going down to the floor of the potato-chip plant and saying to the line workers ‘Your chips stink on ice! Design a better chip or you’re all out of a job! And don’t slow down the line, either – in fact, work longer shifts while you’re coming up with these new products!'”

“But Lars, education really is like marketing. You have to respond to student demand.”

“Responding to demand is all well and good when we are talking about potato chips. Tim, think of this: if snack foods fight it out for shelf space, what happens to kale and broccoli and cauliflower?”

“Nobody wants cauliflower, Lars. Bye, bye, cauliflower!”

“And if departments at a university cannibalize one another for students, what happens to languages and anthropology and philosophy?”

“Bye, bye – no, wait, I don’t like the way this argument is going.”

“Tim, a university is not a buffet. At some point, someone has to take the lead and insist that students get good nutrition. And if that means subsidizing cauliflower with the profits from cookies, then so be it.”

“So you’re saying that central administration needs to attract outside funding, take overhead from those grants and gifts, and apply it strategically to strengthen liberal-arts education.”

“Outside funding, now that you mention it, they have attracted a lot. Private money is pouring in. And for what? They have built a basketball stadium with it.”

“March Madness! Go, SSU! Nothing builds a brand like getting that 65th play-in spot. Bracketology!”

“Tim, you are a nincompoop. Seattle State finished eighth in the Puget Sound Conference last year. They cannot give away tickets. Last winter the cheerleaders outnumbered the fans. Everybody who went to the games got a personal assistant coach to sit beside them and explain the Xs and Os. Which I am happy to say I never will understand. Too much running in basketball. Too much waving your hands in the other man’s face. Give me baseball any day.”

I remembered that Lars loves baseball.

“So, how are the Mariners doing?” I asked.

“Not so good.”


  1. Taking a break from writing corporate donation request letters to read this. Not sure whether to laugh or weep. A little of both.

  2. Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a great author.I will remember to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back from now on. I want to encourage one to continue your great posts, have a nice morning!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar