It started out as a good idea.
Give leaders, whether they be the heads of a city, state, the nation or a university, a day once or twice a year when they can give an honest public account of the state of their jurisdiction. They would list what has gone right and wrong since the last address and their plans for improvements for the months ahead.
But modern “state of” addresses have become perverted versions of that original idea. They are little more than political stumps for the leadership, giving them a chance to glad-hand and back-pat in front of their constituents.
This year, President George W. Bush used his State of the Union address to stump for a war in Iraq, while, for the most part, skirting issues concerning economic policy. Most of the domestic issues he discussed, such as environmental cleanup, could be agreed upon by both parties.
His brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, was accused by critics of using his state of the state address to blame the state’s poor financial situation on the class size amendment. They are not the first in their positions to use the “state of” for that purpose.
In fact, Republican or Democrat alike, “state of” addresses seem to have become little more than glorified campaign stops.
So, today, as President Judy Genshaft delivers her Spring Address, also known as the “state of the university” speech, her faculty and students have to wonder if they will get a true laundry list of the university’s successes and failures, or a political speech that hides the many troubles.
Is a college president above behaving politically? Will she give a true account of the state of the university?
Maybe not. Genshaft’s last address was a beautiful piece of speech writing. It was carefully worded and put a positive spin on everything happening at USF.
At the time, Genshaft was embroiled in the controversy surrounding Sami Al-Arian. People on campus and beyond had waited for months to hear her speak about what she would do with the controversial professor. It was, with its questions of academic freedom and faculty rights, a nationally important piece of news coming out of the university.
But during the speech, the closest Genshaft came to mentioning Al-Arian, possible censure by the American Association of University Professors or any other aspect of the case was to say the university faced “challenges.”
Genshaft spent the rest of the address talking about faculty trust and moving forward to make USF great. She failed to talk about problems festering below the surface, namely faculty distrust and a university suffering from severe budget cuts.
Today, as Genshaft prepares for her address, many of these same problems continue to ferment.
The faculty still wonders about the collective bargaining issue. This same issue has led to, at times, severe distrust, and at least one shouting match between Genshaft and faculty. That has been compounded by her hefty raise, which came during a time when many departments are battling cuts.
Students and faculty alike are concerned about a steadily worsening financial situation. With a possible $115-million cut from Florida universities next year, USF will likely find itself in dire straits. Renu Khator, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, revealed last week that after two rounds of budget cuts, the college’s knees are buckling. There may be no summer classes in 2004, and students may not graduate on time.
Now, a few months after his arrest, the Al-Arian controversy is still in the news. The label of “Terrorist U.” will be hard to break, especially when the AAUP meets in June.
Genshaft will and should address the good things going on at the university. The athletics department is growing, and the faculty should be commended for making USF a force among state universities. And Genshaft should encourage the faculty to work with the administration to make USF the best it can be.
But, to be truly apolitical, she also needs to address the problems. If she does not, fuel may only be added to the fire of faculty distrust, and a rift that has seemed to close during recent weeks may be pushed back open.
Will Genshaft attack all issues at the university? That remains to be seen, but, judging by the past, it is unlikely.
By confidently strolling to the podium, praising the positives and explaining the negatives, Genshaft would probably earn the respect that problem-dodging kills. More importantly, she may demonstrate the difference between a university president and a politician.