The Arizona Desert Lamp

Campus Politics and the English Language

Posted in Campus, Media, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 13 October 2008

It has been over a month since President Shelton first described the inchoate UA Transformation Plan in a cryptic memo titled “Advancing Arizona’s World-Class University.” Today, the first part of that plan comes to an end—faculty proposals on how to cut costs and merge academic departments are due in the Provost’s office by the end of the day.

Over the last few weeks, President Shelton and Provost Hay have written several memos, set up a website, and held frequent town hall meetings in an effort to describe the goals of the swiftly developing Transformation Plan. But despite their explanations, I’m still unclear on its scope and ends—and so are others.

Sure, it’s easy enough to discern that the Transformation’s main purpose is dismissing staff and combining departments in order to save money. This is an economic necessity, but focusing the university’s academic mission is also a worthy endeavor. Yet beyond this aim—which itself has mostly been outlined in periphrases—the rest of the plan is written in the meaningless, inscrutable English of the academic bureaucrat. This is troubling, but not altogether out of place for the modern memo.

Iin his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell described the key characteristics of modern English, which haven’t changed much since:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Political writing, notes Orwell, is particularly bad because it masks insincerity with idioms:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

It is a pity that Orwell never had a chance to read the memos now circulating campus regarding the UA Transformation Plan. By his criteria, they are true accomplishments in incoherence. Indeed, if suffering of language indicates magnitude of badness, the university ought to prepare for a harsh metamorphosis.

I am no George Orwell, but I do believe that a careful look at language can fish some meaning from the murky depths of memoranda. So, in the spirit of his essay, here is my own “catalogue of swindles and perversions,” along with a few observations, all drawn from official campus communication regarding the Transformation Plan:

Epic Circumlocution

How can one write “cut staff and combine faculties” without offending anyone? Let me count the ways:

  1. “Reassess procedures to see where efficiencies can be achieved by streamlining processes and cutting costs.”  [1]
  2. “Engage the entire university community in the process of reassessing how we can improve our operations in order to advance our core mission.” [1]
  3. “Brainstorm on how departments can be reorganized and combined.” [2]
  4. “Determine whether there are areas where the sharing or merging of programs and resources would make strategic sense.” [3]
  5. “Think more strategically about our priorities and develop ways to make fuller use of our resources to meet our obligations.” [4]
  6. “Transform our programs and procedures to be stronger and better.” [4]
  7. “Rethink how we teach, hire faculty, and allocate resources.” [4]
  8. “Become more efficient (and less susceptible to appropriation variations).” [3]

Some of these euphemisms (nos. 2,5) are worse than others (no. 3), but they are all examples of Orwell’s “verbal false limbs,” which obfuscate direct verbs like “cut” with phrases like “reassess procedures to see where efficiencies can be achieved.” Just imagine if the language had been clear all along—if President Shelton had instead said “our budget is tight, so the university must make smart cuts and join departments.” I, for one, would be much less skeptical.

But the euphemisms don’t stop here. Shelton does not write. Rather, he “continue[s] the dialog” [3]. There are no budget cuts, only “appropriation variations” and “the current budget dynamic” [3]. We don’t even have goals—instead, “strategic aspirations” [3]. This is the sort of easy, endemic abuse that dulls meaning and kills thought.

The business of the university is business!

Throughout the memos, there is a regular emphasis on “doing business.” Hay explains that “we cannot continue to do business as usual,” [4] that “we can improve the way we do business” [1] and that “reorganizations” should be “combined with a reassessment of how we do business” [1]. In one memo, she makes the spectacularly meaningless claim that “we are all being challenged to reassess how we do business in order to create more synergy and strengthen our core mission.” This isn’t abuse of language as much as it is an indication of sloppy thought: that the university is primarily a business, not an academy.

Yes, “we” can!

Words like “we” and “our” are used frequently to imply consensus and collective action, or to conceal responsibility. In fact, the memos are almost totally devoid of individual action. For example, one states that “we have all been sorely challenged to meet our financial commitments,” [4] though I’d wager that most of us are doing all right—it’s the university that’s challenged. Later, Provost Hay writes that “at the direction of President Shelton, we have initiated The University of Arizona Transformation Plan,” [4] as if everyone on campus jumped up to start working together. Of course, this occludes that she is the one who initiated the plan on behalf of the administration. Memos include frequent reminders that everyone should be involved in the planning process—but by using “we” so frequently, the entire campus seems to already be included! Or consider this paragraph written by President Shelton:

“Our primary goal is to make The University of Arizona better. We want to be able to serve more students and make their academic experience richer. We want to hire and retain the very best faculty in the world, and that means that we need to pay them what world-class faculty are paid. We want research that will transform our understanding of the world, and outreach that will make life better for all the citizens of Arizona.” [3]

Problem is, it’s unclear whether “we” means “Provost Hay and I,” or “the university management” or “my secretary and my mother-in-law and I”—or, more ominously, if “we” are simply being told what “we” already want.

Finally, one other sentence using “we” is particularly notable. President Shelton writes that he has formed committees to consider topics:

“from how we can restructure ourselves across our colleges and departments, to how we offer our curriculum and reward excellence in teaching, to how we make the right decisions on strategic research investments, to the structural changes that would both save money and make us stronger academically. [3]

Note, here, that “we” are restructuring, “we” are rewarding excellence, and “we” are making the right decisions—but someone else will be deciding on the structural changes. This is true—but it’s breaks the facade of consensus created by “we.”

Change we can believe in

Call me a Burkean, but I don’t recall when change became a virtue for its own sake. Hard to tell from the language of Shelton’s original memo, however: “The status quo will no longer work. Instead, the time has come to take bold action that will radically change the way we operate”; “we must change in a significant way, and we must begin that change sooner rather than later”; “if we are going to flourish in the decade ahead, the time for transformative change is now” [3]. This may all be true—but these phrases are meaningless without a clear explanation of why or how we ought to change. Where explanations exist, they are, unfortunately, as vague as the rest of the memos.

I still have hope that the Transformation Plan can become a useful, fruitful thing. In fact, a prudent plan to focus on Arizona’s academic strengths and prune its weaknesses is exactly what the university needs. I only hope that the quality of its language will belie the quality of its principles.

[1] Weekly Update, 9/26

[2] Weekly Update, 9/19

[3] President’s Memo, 9/3

[4] Provost’s Memo, 9/6


4 Responses

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  1. […] In how many ways can one say “cut staff and combine faculties?” Desert Lamp counts the ways: […]

  2. […] by Evan Lisull on October 19th, 2008 1. Now that you’ve been thoroughly educated by both Connor and Justyn on the abuses of the English language, revel in this convoluted phrasing: One way to […]

  3. […] on the changes that were just recently approved by the Faculty Senate (you can read about it here). Campus Politics and the English Language gets a new addition in the form of  ”program disestablishments” – by which we mean, […]

  4. […] on “STEM” fields, however, received no mention at all in the transformation plan, which emphasized “synergies” and “reassessments.” MacCorquodale’s report is rather […]

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