Warning: rant ahead.
In the first time of the history of this site (okay, so it’s not European length history, but still, it’s the first time) I’ve cross-posted this entry to both sections of my blog, because I think it applies to both academic and non-academic audiences. If you’re not a Brandeis University alum or don’t regularly read the New York Times, you might not have heard about my doctoral alma mater’s plan, carefully considered after months of discussion, thought, and research, to save the university’s financial future.
Sell all the art.
Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification on a few fronts. First of all, Brandeis doesn’t need to be “saved,” exactly; their financial situation isn’t quite that dire (I hope, but more on that possibility in a second), but several major Brandeis donors were hurt badly by the Bernie Madoff scandal, and so this is necessary (we’re told) to keep Brandeis in a strong financial position going forward. Second, the plan is to close the Rose Art Museum, which has been open on the Brandeis campus for nearly fifty years, then sell the art in a careful and controlled manner so as to recoup some of the losses in Brandeis’s endowment. But still, break this down to its essence and you’re more or less left with my original apparently flip comment: Brandeis is selling its art to save itself.
Now I will freely confess that I am no art expert. The university estimates that the total value of the collection is between $350 and $400 million (although since that estimate was done several years ago it’s hard to see how the value won’t have dropped significantly), and I guess that would be a financial help to the university. Moreover, my experience at Brandeis was shaped by my experiences with the English faculty, debate team, library and music facilities, not the Rose, which I only went to once during my five years there. But I’m more than a little annoyed at this news (and I’m not alone) for two reasons.
1. This is indicative of a very, very bad trend: when you get in trouble financially, don’t look to the places where you’re financially strongest for help. Don’t go to the richest vein to mine. No, when you’re in trouble, completely obliterate something which doesn’t bring in a whole lot of money and the defenders of which will therefore squawk the least. It’s the opposite of trimming the fat…this is cutting into the muscle first and seeing what happens. Since it tends to be the business people who dominate Brandeis’s Board of Trustees who make decisions like this, I find this way of looking at things astonishing (though maybe I shouldn’t, given the way Wall Street conducted itself over the past decade)–I thought the whole business mantra is to cut the bloated areas, not remove from places where there is nothing left to, well, remove. But as frustrating as this is, it pales in comparison to the second reason I’m annoyed:
2. It’s always the arts. Always. Every time, on any level. When in doubt, attack the arts. Low on funds? Cut the music program. Can’t make ends meet? Get rid of the art studio. Balance in the red? The heck with the theater program. From middle school to research university, the script is the same: cut the arts to save money while pontificating about how difficult a decision it was, how much it pains you to do this, how truly necessary it is for the institution’s survival, etc., etc. All this despite the fact, in Brandeis’s case, that how necessary this actually was is very much in question (given the utter surprise this came as to the museum’s board, director (check out his statement if you don’t believe me), faculty and students, it can’t have been in the works for that long, unless the university was planning this secretly for a while and is now lying through its teeth), since the art collection is likely not to fetch now as much as it was estimated to be worth then. And what happens the next time people defer too much to the Bernie Madoffs of the world, not asking questions, not following up, not looking for details about how this money is mysteriously being made, just happy to see the checks come in? What happens when the next set of big donors gets in trouble? Close down the music program and sell the instruments?
So here is my suggestion to Brandeis, one of which I think many alumni would approve: have the guts to publicly admit you made a mistake, and using everyone’s input, come up with a way to ensure you won’t make it again. Then stop this absurd and short-sighted art fire sale and go to your science program–the one which pays its graduate students far more than any other graduate program on campus–and take some money from it. Close down a lab for a change, or cut a grant, or freeze the funding for that new chemistry wing you’ve been talking about. Perhaps then you’ll get some people asking the hard questions, and start finding solutions that don’t involve slashing programs which are fundamental to the cultural and artistic life of a university campus.
But whatever you choose to do, please, just once, try looking somewhere other than the arts for things to cut. It’s about time someone else started paying the price for your ill judgment. I’m very fond of Brandeis and remember my time there with pleasure, but sorry…they’ve missed the boat badly on this one, and they deserve to take heat for it.