Only two things improve students’ success, always did and always will: the teacher’s excellence in teaching his/her subject and his/her interest in and care for his/her students.
Studies clearly show again and again that it is nurturing collaboration with educators and supporting staff that enables students to succeed. It is called the human factor and no technologically supported bureaucracy can ever replace it.
Yet, at this time of crisis, University of Alaska administration has focused cuts on the very people necessary to safeguard student success while at the same time paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside consulting firms, buying corporate software and hiring people to run them.
One of the latest of such acquisitions, purchased without any faculty knowledge or consultation, has a trendy name — Nanook Navigator. It has been “strongly suggested” to faculty and staff as a tool to improve student success, which will materialize once faculty begin completing grade reports every three weeks for the first nine weeks of the semester and synchronizing their calendars with Nanook Navigator by putting all activities — student advising, committees, meetings, clubs, mentorship, etc. — into it.
Although all attempts to find out whose idea it was to purchase this miracle wand elicited the same gesture of pointing at the ceiling, apparently meaning Olympian gods, it wasn’t that difficult to trace its origin and price. Nanook Navigator comes from a corporate software company and is meant for handling sales.
Its annual license fee for the University of Alaska Fairbanks alone is $167,000. With a contract that began in 2017 and runs through 2022, it comes to $835,000 in fees plus a $140,000 one-time contract initiation fee, altogether totaling $975,000.
Considering that a new person was also hired just to operate Nanook Navigator, the price amounts to more than $1 million, one-fifth of an entire college annual budget. At least four full-time instructors could be hired or retained for this amount (based on a $50,000 annual salary).
Yet this $1 million has been spent on a product that is unnecessary, inefficient and potentially damaging.
It is unnecessary, as no one can seriously believe that putting appointments into a Google calendar will improve students’ success. People who pretend to believe so either have never been teachers themselves or have bad faith.
It is inefficient, as it would take time and energy away from the actual teaching, advising and service.
It is damaging because products like Nanook Navigator represent a nationwide trend of corporatizing everyone and everything, of transforming noncorporate entities like universities into faceless corporations run by bloated upper management aspiring to turn the university into an Amazon-like warehouse, where workers clock out to pee. The same is likely true for other recently introduced corporate innovations, such as the mandatory exasperating and insanely time-consuming faculty-control travel program (Concur) and the like. The ever-increasing emphasis on reporting one’s every move always benefits bureaucrats, who are masters of putting, as the French say, appearance before being, but hurts creative and research-productive faculty. What is put in the Google calendar risks to end up, in the eyes of administrators, who are always so fond of numbers and charts, as one of the measures of faculty’s performance, eventually counting for promotion, retention, evaluation, termination, etc.
The acquisition of these superfluous and costly corporate tools has two motivations. One is to keep, literally at all costs, numerous administrative positions, which, on average, pay at least double compared with faculty. The other is the visceral mistrust of faculty and the desire to impress control over them by a thousand blows.
It is past due time to wake up and realize that a university is first and foremost faculty and students, those who teach and those who learn, with administrators serving and protecting their well-being — not the other way around. However, this is unlikely to happen. They have too much to lose.
Yelena Mazour-Matusevich is a professor of French and history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.