January 24, 2013

Stumbling towards catastrophe

To protect its reputation, University must take more cooperative, proactive approach to problem solving.

Over winter break, I spoke with a friend who goes to a prestigious college in the northeastern United States. As with many winter break conversations between students, the topic shifted to our respective schools. After some pleasantries about clubs, professors, and jobs, my friend said something weird: “How’s your toilet?”

I was confused for a second, but quickly realized what he was talking about. I swiftly shot back, “Do they not have internet in that little town of yours? That happened 10 months ago.” We talked about it a bit more and he asked me how the University let something so outrageous—so patently absurd—happen. I didn’t have a quick comeback for that one. How did something as simple as maintaining the plumbing escape the institution that was first to split the atom?

Over the next few days, this paradox was like a tiny splinter in the back of my mind. I wasn’t bothered by the ribbing; no, it was something conceptually bigger than that. A thought occurred to me: My friend, who is bright and goes to a top university, will probably go on to be a successful academic, business leader, elected official, or otherwise influential person. He will interact with other influential people and may live and work in the public eye. And any time he thinks about the University of Chicago, he will remember the exploding toilets. It probably won’t dominate his thoughts about the University, but it will always be there, subtly influencing his perception. As I thought that through, I realized that the conversation was so troubling because it reflects a larger fact: The University has an image problem.

I will admit that this is no grand revelation. I believe that even the Administration is aware of this fact—perhaps painfully so. Many of their policies seem to reflect this: revamping career services, beautifying campus, erecting helpful signs, and even banning certain ‘suggestive’ words like “urban” from admissions tours.

Yet there are also a maddening number of instances in which the University has completely dropped the ball in promoting a positive image. Exploding toilets garnered us national media attention; rat-infested dining halls got us written up not only by the health department, but also in local newspapers. The University is letting its contract for free campus bus routes expire with no alternative in sight and has arguably bungled the transition away from SafeRide. There are a number of other proverbial dams about to burst (Max Palevsky laundry machines, anyone?). Each new mishap encourages people like my friend to see us in a less favorable light. I think it goes without saying that this is a pattern we want to avoid, but I simply haven’t observed the University taking steps toward that end.

Rather, such incidents are illustrative of a greater, even more troubling trend: Major issues are not being addressed before they reach a crisis phase. Instead of proactively seeking resolutions, the University is waiting for problems of all kinds to crop up before it reacts.

Take the exploding toilets, for instance. The financial compensation given to Pierce residents was not much more than a stopgap measure to stem their outrage. And while the facilities improvements were certainly generous, the fact that they’re only going to be enjoyed for a year negates some of their impact. In the end, the decision to demolish Pierce is a great example of what I’m talking about: Demolishing the building immediately after the blow-up—even though it’s the right decision—is a tacit admission of failure. The horse is already out of the barn. Hell, the horse took off at a gallop two hours ago.

Because the University waits until problems reach an unexpected climax, the community will suffer routine outages, hassles, and inconveniences. These are obviously things that we want to avoid. But the greater cost of this reactive management style is what I mentioned earlier: the damage to our prestige that each unexpected incident does. When we make the news for something like exploding toilets, it is going to color the public’s perception of us—perhaps not immensely, but indelibly.

There is, perhaps, one decisive step the University could take in order to try and prevent the cycle of “problem-reaction-problem.” As it currently stands, the University employs a system of double-entry bookkeeping. This is a fairly complex accounting principle, but in practice it means that the University acts as a federal authority that oversees all of its independent departments. For instance, The Office of Undergraduate Student Housing (OUSH) can “pay” IT Services to set up a website, and both departments record the transaction independently. Each department is given an extremely high level of autonomy to spend money how it sees fit.

While this method does have advantages, I believe it also strongly contributes to the cycle of crisis that we observe. Instead of viewing themselves as cooperating members of a larger organization, departments are forced to take on the role of buyers and sellers in a market, often with misaligned or mutually unknown interests. For instance, the Class of 2016 was the latest in a string of exceptionally large newly admitted classes that forced OUSH to scramble for extra room. It certainly would be a complex undertaking to alter accounting schemes institution-wide in order to facilitate better interdepartmental cooperation, but it would ultimately lead to much smoother outcomes. The only alternative may be continued catastrophes.

Taylor Schwimmer is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.