Civilization is the simple aggregation of institutions. Churches. Governments. Social and philanthropic orders. Institutions of knowledge.
They exist to bring permanence to the human experience — to be the mechanisms capable of transcending a human lifetime and, in doing so, giving purpose to the lives of individuals.
To be a part of something that existed before you were born and that will continue to exist long after you're dead is, excuse me for being dramatic, to be in some measure immortal.
When institutions aren't
Institutions come in all sizes. As small as the engagement ring passed from one generation to another. Or as large as a nation.
But whether small or large, institutions are about identity. They're about shared experiences and the words not said between those who share the institution's values, those who are part of the institution's culture.
Just as what they are, we can know what they are not. Institutions are not federations. They're not alliances of individual fiefdoms all vying for a piece of pie. They're not a host of corporations in possession of a franchise kit from Indianapolis.
They're organically whole. They seek to cement, not decimate, because doing so increases their permanence. And permanence is the reason they exist. It's what they bring to the human table.
Indiana University is a nearly 200-year-old institution, familiar to all of us. Some basic facts about IU: It has an annual budget that exceeds $2 billion dollars a year, of which less than a quarter comes from Indiana's taxpayers.
The word "Indiana" is a trademark of Indiana University. Keep that in mind if you're planning on opening an "Indiana Fried Chicken" restaurant.
The university is owned by a nine-member board of trustees, not, as is commonly believed, by the administrative state of Indiana, nor Indiana's residents. The Board of Trustees, in turn, have both a legal and a moral duty to hold, in trust for the future, the assets, capital and goodwill of the university.
Three of the trustees are elected by IU alumni. Five of the trustees are appointed by the governor of Indiana and a sixth is appointed by the governor from a pool of student applicants selected by committee.
As I said, less than a quarter of IU's support comes from the state (in fact student-paid tuition is a larger part of IU's budget than state support). So it's a little lopsided that the state, through the governor, controls six of the nine trustee positions.
You've no doubt heard about plans to privatize some of the university's ancillary functions. In a nutshell, there's a particular brand of religious fervor in vogue, a fervor that holds, absent anything but religious faith to support it, that deconstructing public institutions into federations of private interests is good, while opposing such deconstruction is bad, or at least quaintly naive.
This process, called privatization by its detractors and outsourcing by its supporters, is sometimes justified on a cost basis. For example, while defending the concept of institutional privatization, IU Vice-President Terry Clapacs (not himself a trustee) stated, "The only bias is to make sure the services required by the university are delivered in the most efficient and cost-effective way."
At first blush, this remarkable quote seems reasonable enough, which is what it's designed to be. After all who would argue that the mission of any institution was to get its services in the most inefficient and uncost-effective way?"
But, of course, that's not actually the bias that the university does, or should, use. It's not the bias any individual would use. Hell it's not even the bias a corporation would use.
People, corporations and institutions don't get things just because they're the cheapest and most efficient. If they did, our highways would be stuffed with bicycles, not Mercedes SUVs.
People, corporations and institutions get things because they need them and because they reflect the values of those people, corporations and institutions. Now you might criticize me for being a bit hyperbolic here, after all we're only talking about outsourcing the IU motor pool and the IU bookstore, right?
Well, maybe. But death by a thousand cuts is death nonetheless. If outsourcing IU's motorpool makes sense, then what's the endgame? Using Mr. Clapac's justification (which is widely held), what parts of the institution could not, should not, be considered for privatization?
The answer is none. Taken to its extreme, the arguments so far put forth for privatization apply as well to the motorpool as they do to the faculty, the administration and even the trustees themselves. I'm sure a "more efficient and cost-effective" alternative can be found for all of them, without very much trying at all.
But that would be ridiculous. Because it would harm the institution. And in harming the institution, it would harm civilization.
Unfortunately, I have not heard the IU trustees speak of their legal and moral responsibility to defend the institution, including its ancillary services.
Past trustees thought it in the institution's best interest to have a motor pool (what $2 billion corporation, doesn't?) and bookstore. But now should we believe those past trustee decisions were made in error?
We're told that now the trustees need to look to find ways to save money for the state, not look out for the interests of the institution.
Is there confusion among the current trustees with regard to their allegiances, and to what purpose they serve? Given how they're appointed, and by whom, I wouldn't blame them if there was.
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.