The Arizona Desert Lamp

Ersatz Transparency

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 30 October 2009

Tastes Like Butter!

Two seemingly unrelated stories in yesterday’s Wildcat underline the problems that this university’s administration has with something simple like transparency. First, we have an article on ASUA’s “Safe Ride-Along” program:

In an attempt to reach out to the UA student body, ASUA has launched a campaign to put senators in Safe Ride vehicles to probe for feedback. The Daily Wildcat sent reporter Shannon Maule along for a ride to get the story on this project.

What an awful experience. You’ve just finished studying, getting ready to relax at home, when suddenly you get shanghaied into talking not only with an ASUA Senator, but a Wildcat reporter. Also, the very unofficial “Probe Watch” goes up to two. In explaining the reasoning behind this program, Sen. Hilary Davidson offers the following:

The ride along is part of an overall design to lend transparency to ASUA, Davidson said.

“We want to be out there and meet each student and hear what they want to say because we represent the whole student body,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Dean of Students’ Office is apparently too busy sanctioning underage drinkers to find the time to put a decent sexual assault reporting protocol online. As a remedy for the future, they offer this:

The Dean of Students Office is investing into social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instant Messenger to reach out to students for safety and wellness concerns.

There’s a very important distinction between transparency and outreach. Transparency, in this context, refers to making the shadowy aspects of governance less so. It means making information about internal governing practices more readily available – releasing the budget and Senate minutes are examples of this. It does not mean rehashing campaign drivel in an awkward setting. Early in the article, Davidson states that the ride-alongs help to “reach out” to students, a nice way of describing administrative cheerleading. True transparency is not something that any PR department wants; the goals of full disclosure and a polished image are inherently at odds. Ride-alongs give the appearance of transparency, without actually delivering the goods.

The DoS approach is somehow even worse, exhibiting the weird Twitter fetish endemic in all sorts of inappropriate settings. Banal administrative accounts have sprung up like putrid toadstools, and rather than getting more information we simply find ourselves getting stupider with each and every tweet excreted by, say, the “UACampusRec” account. Yes, we know we are “phat,” but would you care to tell us more about this semi-secret third fee you’ve been striving for?  The Campus Rec expansion might be “Xciting” to some, but is it appropriate for an institution supposedly devoted to academics? State money and tuition dollars were quite literally spent to produce drivel like “Laura Wilder” and “Will Wilder,” a fact that should insult the conscience of anyone intelligent enough to attend the school.

Instead of treating their students like malleable automatons susceptible to the most obvious messaging, these administrative bodies might try a little forthrightness instead. Tell us a bit more about your internal operations, rather than telling us what you’d like us to do.

And really, stop writing like a eighth grader in an attempt to be “hip” with the kids.

Fan cans gone wild

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 28 August 2009
I suddenly feel a strange urge to drink from a plastic handle. (Accessed from http://goodbadandugly2.wordpress.com/)

I suddenly feel a strange urge to take a double-shot. (Accessed from http://goodbadandugly2.wordpress.com/)

A once quirky tale of beer cans is now a somewhat big story, and even the luminaries at the Cato Institute have taken the time to fire a broadside at the FTC.

The coverage continues here in Tucson as well. We appreciate the dap from Becky Pallack, who is taking over for Aaron Mackey at the Star‘s “Campus Correspondent” blog. Somehow we missed it in our compilation of UA blogs, but it’s definitely worth adding to the old ‘roll. As a real journalist, she actually went ahead and contacted the local Anheuser-Busch distributor, who said that there would be no fan cans in Tucson for “business reasons.”

The good – well, obvious – news here is that these cans are not at all going to change drinking habits that much. Since almost no one takes to time to study the cans of the cheap beer that they’re drinking, this is definitely a niche market. Armchair market analysis sez that this would sell best in the South, with its strong tailgate tradition and school pride. The somewhat sad news is that this is an implicit statement on the state of UA fandom – UA nation doesn’t demonstrate enough school pride to justify its own themed cans.

Meanwhile, Ben Kalafut describes this site as (I quote out of context), “[an] application of a bit of tequila to the flickering wick.” With his permission, we’ll be adapting this line as a de facto statement of purpose. At any rate, Ben not only likes the idea, but would take it one step further:

They should embrace it and even go one farther: license the “A” logo or the silly Wildcat thing, and charge a per-can royalty.

I’m guessing that the Bud Light drinkers, especially the ones who’d be more inclined to drink it because of the logo, overlap considerably with those who moan–and hop buses to the Capitol en masse to moan–about tuition fee increases (how dare they charge me more for this private good?) even as the State faces extreme shortfalls. I’m fairly certain they’re also the ones who shout “ow!” at random on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, who blast stereos from their cars, who pile five at a time into trucks and harass pedestrians, and who generally lower both the University’s prestige and, more importantly, the quiet enjoyment of the neighborhood by others.

Bud Light licensing, like a surcharge for the most obnoxious students. Fair enough, right?

Ben’s tongue seems to be at least partly in his cheek, but it sounds rather reasonable if the university stipulates that all funds derived from such licensing will go to alcohol prevention programs, alcoholism recovery programs, etc. The basic problem that underlies this entire discussion is the base assumption on the part of university officials that striving for an alcohol-free student body is possible and worth striving for. For a group of academics supposedly committed to “community outreach,” this a surprisingly disappointingly blinkered and uninformed view of history, culture, and human nature.

If instead, university officials accepted the young people enjoy, and will continue to enjoy, the consumption of alcohol, they could advocate policies that might actually have an impact on the well-being of their students. They would advocate for something like the Stony Brook’s medical amnesty program, which provides incentives for providing care to sick underage drinkers, rather than worrying about the legal trouble that they might get in. They would advocate for lowering the drinking age, removing the incentive for underclassmen to binge drink and bringing the current shadow economy of sub-21 drinking to the light (and removing entirely the need for such an amnesty program).

In the spirit of going one further, I’ll ask: why shouldn’t the UA get into the alcohol business, to provide a nice “Eller IPA” to pour into that Arizona stein you got for graduation? For liquor, “Wilbur Water” has a definite ring to it – and perhaps “Wilma Water” would serve as the Malibu equivalent. The Sage & Silver would be the scotch you drink with your uncles. In certain scenarios, students would opt for the UA’s alcohol over other options, providing the university with revenue that would otherwise go to InBev or A-B. Would university officials really argue that it’s better for that money to go outside of the school?

That being said, this will happen at around the same time that “Zona Smokes” (Inhale the Saguaro!) are marketed behind the counter of the U-Mart. But this proposal is no more insane than the current stance of the University, which denies the reality of collegiate drinking in favor of “Just Say No” pabulum that rings falsely in the ears of just about any informed student. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

ASUA is thinking about going into the music business. It’s thinking about producing.

Posted in Campus, Media, Politics by Evan Lisull on 4 May 2009

Chili PalmerShain Bergan should get a medal for all the great quotes he’s managed to get this year (here you go, Shain!). Take this doozy from his must-read Bash basher:

The lead up to such a large-scale concert began four years ago, with ASUA slowly building up its reputation through smaller shows until they had proven they could handle a big-time concert, Bruce said.

You have to prove yourself in the industry,” he said. “There’s a lot to be learned about what we’ve done.” [emphasis added – EML]

Despite the financial losses, Bruce still called the concert a success, as it can be used as a retention and recruitment tool for the university, Bruce said.

The music industry is tough – which is why a student government should have no business attempting to move up the ranks or establish itself within it. Tucson already has the Rialto Theatre and the Club Congress, which bring in well-renowned acts at far more affordable rates; for those who like their music at the margins, the bars along Fourth Ave. – especially Plush – offer a variety of options. Nearby Phoenix has even more offerings. Yet even if the UA were as isolated a desert community as it were in the 1890s, on what basis has its student government determined establishment in the music business as a top priority? The preamble to the government’s constitution states the following as ASUA’s goals:

the articulation of student opinions and interests both in the governance of the university and to the community at large; the encouragement of the greatest level of cooperation and communication between students and student organizations; the assurance that students have full access to quality higher education at The University of Arizona; the provision for programs and services of
benefit to students; and the encouragement of the highest level of excellence in education at The University of Arizona.

Arguing that a concert of this magnitude was done for “retention” purposes is disingenous at best (as an Eller student, Bruce should know about cost-benefit analysis by this point), and one must openly wonder if the UA even wants to retain students who stay in school only for the concerts. Yet the broader issue is this: neglecting basic democratic principles while working tirelessly on music industry outreach is bad government.

Such a concept is incomprehensible – literally – to President Bruce and EVP Anderson, who are both prizewinning marketing majors. In the course of three years (stretching back to Hertzog), ASUA has been effectively turned from a combative elected body, into a quasi-corporate firm. It is this mindset that pervades the organization currently, and goes a long way in explaining its seemingly bizarro nature. Naturally, a marketeer has no interest in transparency – for why should they reveal the company’s secrets? And what are national elections and climate threats, if not excuses to expand market awareness of ASUA through sponsored parties? So what if the Student Services Fee and the Elections Code subverted the democratic process – look at those awesome signs!

The costs of promotional pomposity

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 5 April 2009

Student Services Fee MadnessAs if the litany of other absurdities associated with the Student Services Fee weren’t enough, recipients of SSF money must use some of the funds to pay for the ‘Mark of the Fee’ signs that are becoming increasingly ubiquitous on campus:

So that students are aware of the funding source of the various programs and/or services, it is crucial to have the proper signage and marketing materials available.

The Students Affairs Marketing Department can assist you in determining which of the following materials are appropriate for your needs.  The cost of these materials must be included in your application budget.
. . .

Prices:

1) 1.25” white gloss round Stickers, $60 for roll of 1,000 (Allow 15 business days for this option)

2) 5” round Static Cling Clear Vinyl Window Label, $5 each

3) 12” Exterior Single-Sided Flat Circle Sign,  $80 each (Mimaki print on acrylic, three-hole drilled. Optional Acrylic facing, add $10)

4) 16” Interior Hanging Double-Sided Circular Sign,  $85 each (Tuffprint mounted on gator, hole drilled on top)

5) 24” Interior Single-Sided Wall-Mounted Circular Sign,  $160 each (Lexan on Sintra, pre-drilled holes)

Tuffprint on gator – your money, hard at work.

ASUA: your student marketing firm

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 25 March 2009

ASUA Concert PosterThere is something to be said for the critique that it’s ostentatious to flash bling when you’re groveling before the state (although I’m sure there’s some clause in the contract requiring a performance of “Hard Knock Life” with a shout-out to the latest budget battles). Yet this passage, from today’s Wildcat article, was the most striking:

The idea to bring a major act to Arizona Stadium began within ASUA three years ago. It is an idea that has become a reality for the first time since the 1977 Fleetwood Mac concert.

“This has been an event three years in the making,” Bruce said. “We always want to bring a large-scale event to the UA.”

. . .

The announcement comes after months of bids and invitations to 150 different music artists.

I am fairly certain that no one within ASUA has taken the time to consider 150 constitutions, student government or otherwise. I am entirely certain that no one has bothered to peruse 150 elections codes. I would be surprised if anyone had contacted 150 fellow student governments for advice. For a governing body, ASUA has an odd aversion to governance. Yet it loves marketing, and works tirelessly and effectively at this – that’s a pretty nifty poster. If this is the purpose of ASUA, why not have the Marketing and Promotion department incorporate them as an entirely student-run department? All the concerts and sports events, with none of the Bizarro rules.

You stay World-Classy, Arizona!

Posted in Campus, Media by Connor Mendenhall on 25 September 2008

Great news! The University of Arizona’s marketing department is packing up the phrase “Arizona’s First University” and sending it off to the special section of Hell reserved for banal nonsense and communications majors. From the Arizona Daily Star :

While campus officials haven’t lost their sense of history, the UA’s “Arizona’s First University” slogan has become an artifact of the past.

As brand management becomes an integral part of the University of Arizona’s marketing strategies, officials have tweaked the campus wide calling card to “Arizona’s World-Class University” in an attempt to reflect the institution’s academic and research prowess. Rather than holding a formal kickoff for the new phrase, officials will begin to replace old signs and update marketing materials in the coming weeks.

Forgive me a smug moment of triumph: I suggested scuttling our slogan last year, since the phrase was nothing more than empty adspeak. Regrettably, the new one is even worse.

“Arizona’s First University” was stupid, but at least it was a coherent statement, like “Arizona’s largest campus arboretum” or “Arizona’s most useless fact.” What it lacked was any expression of aspiration. But “Arizona’s World-Class University” trades a flat fact for a dumb idiom. Just what is “world-class” supposed to mean? Commonly understood, the term describes “persons or things regarded as outstanding throughout the world.” For example, the entire higher-education system of the United States, far and away the best on Earth. We’re already “world-class”—it’s “United States-class” and “Arizona-class” that need improvement!

I’m not the only one who’s less than enthused. The Star article goes on to quote Terri Shafer, an Arizona State marketing apparatchik:

“Making ‘world-class’ your primary marketing claim would earn you an F in Marketing 101,” she wrote. “There are literally hundreds of colleges and universities that say they’re world-class. It’s a meaningless term with no accepted measurement standard.”

Shafer said ASU doesn’t have a single tag line and uses several themes and messages to convey what officials there call their mission as a “New American University.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—”New American University” is an excellent, succinct turn of phrase for Michael Crow’s vision of ASU as academic Leviathan (not that I think it’s necessarilly a good vision). A meaningful slogan requires a meaningful mission, but as far as I can tell, UA’s biggest official ambition is, as President Shelton recently so eloquently put it, to “continue the dialog that began last May regarding the current budget dynamic and our strategic aspiration to be among the ten best public research universities in the nation.” Inspiring. Sure, all our focus may be on thinning the herd of late—but why, oh why can’t we do it with some vision?

ASUA Meeting #2 Wrap-up

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 3 September 2008

This meeting was mercifully short, and really discussed only one important issue at length: the Student Affairs Fee.

Before I get into this, though, there are two broader points worth making:

1) In spite of what criticism has/will come out of this blog, President Bruce is a damn effective president. Having two years helps, but his wonkish knowledge about all things UA and Arizona-related ensures for an effective leadership that ultimately trickles down through the rest of ASUA. His Powerpoint presentations have been very forthcoming in history, process, and allocation of funds; overall, extremely impressive. The juxtaposition between the president and his subordinates (including the Senate) could not be greater.

2) The whole populist theme of being “your student government” is becoming more and more obnoxious by the hour; and increasingly, I find that it is not just over-the-top, but a bit facetious as well. The difference between the slogan and the action was best exemplified during the day’s reports, in which four different officials (by my count) discussed an event held at President Shelton’s house for student leaders on campus. Various anecdotes were supposedly told to show how much Shelton cares about the students, but the broader message was. “We get to party at the President’s house.” Rather than having longer discussions about improving life on campus (which, presumably, is what the official meetings are for), they instead recalled a house party.

Yet this also reflects a broader trend in dealing with campus issues. The inevitable solution, like those in higher offices that they seek to emulate, is the formation of a commission, or a program, or a council — none of which have any sort of impact on the issue at play. Can’t find healthy food on campus (which, incidentally, is a patent lie — the problem is the cost)? Form a healthy food committee, with a pithy acronym! Worried about about safety when walking home, at night and on the weekends? Form a Campus Safety Council, which meets during the week at 2 PM!

Ultimately, ASUA has little to nothing to do with the “average” UA student — much as legislators in Washington have little to nothing to do with the “average” American citizen. The whole “your student government” canard reeks of overcompensation. Just as the guy with an under-endowment can be heard grunting at the Rec Center, the student government that is completely inwardly focused and riddled with inside jokes will describe itself as “your” student government.

That having been said, the Student Affairs Fee (SAF). The first factoid to emerge is the curious way in which the SAF came to be. Initially, student fees were put to a vote, along with the rest of the ASUA elections, and ultimately failed. For the record, some pertinent paragraphs from a Wildcat editorial decrying the fee:

First, there’s been absolutely no unbiased information published about the fee. The union itself hosts the only Web site purported to contain “facts” about the fee.

Union leaders had initially rushed to put the fee on last month’s student government ballot but were denied because there wasn’t enough time to inform the public. The delay most likely helped the union, as the special election guarantees that only interested parties vote.

Finally, the biggest student group that would be bolstered by the fee is the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership, which supervises the 541 clubs on campus.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that the biggest supporters of the fee are the students within CSIL. These ardent fee supporters will tell you that every student uses the union in some fashion – be it a study lounge or computer common – and that a “no” vote in some way endangers those aspects of the union.

In reality, the threat of the union closing down study lounges or suddenly losing computers is implausible at best. Furthermore, current plans for technology upgrades using fee funds call for ridiculous expenditures, such as $75,000 for plasma TVs that would be used for club advertising.

To avert another runaway election like the Rec Center referendum, students of all stripes must head to the polls today and vote “no.”

As much as things change, they stay the same. The initiative was ultimately destroyed at the polls, losing by over 40 points.

However, Bruce said during this presentation, referendums were not necessary for the fee to be enacted; there was also an administrative route (i.e. just add the damn thing in there without letting anyone know), or it could be enacted based on results from a student survey.

The rest, of course, is history: the survey was conducted, a representative sample was achieved (more on the results later), and the fee was added.

This is a very sneaky way to get a student fee added. The story reads something like this: officials in ASUA, GPSC, CSIL, etc. wanted a fee. The students had resoundingly said no. Rather than risk another failed vote, ASUA went to a survey, pretended that it represented the will of the UA, and tacked it on.

The survey did indeed have a greater sample size. Yet if this were the case, and students overwhelmingly supported a fee (as was implied), then why not put it to a vote? If this were really about the students and what they wanted, should they not be able to decide whether or not to up their own tuition?

Anyways, the survey resulted with the following numbers:
5,111 respondents

Freshman — 1346        26.3%
Sophomore— 772    15.1%
Junior—– 727    14.2%
Senior—- 883    17.3%
Graduate—–  1326        25.9%

According to the 2007-08 UA Fact Book, the overall percentages break down as follows:

34,751 total students

Freshmen —- 7,542  (21.7 %)
Sophomore — 6,045 (17.4%)
Junior —– 6,343      (18.3%)
Senior —— 8,740    (25.2%)
Graduate —– 6,870 (19.8%)

So we have freshmen and graduate students greatly over-represented, which ultimately results in a $50,000 increase for G.P.S.C. travel expenses, and $280,000 for student Union improvements (ironically enough, given the editorial on the 2006 fee, one of the listed improvements was an upgrade of the televisions in the TV lounge). Also, even with the “large” turnout of the survey, this is a sample size of less than 15 percent. Not bad for polling pre-information, but a bit tenuous to institute increased fees on.

Wisely, the freshmen pay an addition $20 per year, in addition to the current $20 per semester SAF (which will go up to $40 per semester by next year). This is a good first step, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to make sure that those living on-campus (and, therefore, benefiting the most from the improvements) could pony up even more of the costs. Two ideas:

1) Reduce the total fee amount on tuition, and apply a fee onto the cost of on-campus housing.

2) Rather than a flat fee (which is, frankly, lazy), apply the fee on a percentage basis, applying a greater percentage to the lower classes, discounting as a student works their way through the system (and, consequently, away from campus).

Right now, the big push on campus is marketing, what Bruce described as, “the most important part” of the future of the program. This involves placing the “Mark of the Fee” (yes, that is how it’s described; you really cannot make this up) at various restaurants and venues that use SAF funds. I wouldn’t be surprised if this made for a funny juxtaposition someday down the road.