The DIY University

As my colleagues and I began to get our courses organized for this academic year we were atwitter with anticipation. The classroom-management website we use had been totally reorganized over the summer. We were promised something new and exciting.

Most faculty members use classroom sites nowadays. Blackboard’s is a popular version. At Ohio State University the site is called Carmen. The old version of Carmen was entirely adequate. It would sometimes slow down (or crash) at the start of each term—you know, when students were actually using it. But most of us accommodated ourselves to its foibles and got on with our work.

The new, improved version, however, was an unmitigated disaster. If you somehow managed to navigate its confusing interface, you would discover that many of its basic functions didn’t work. Or they worked sometimes and not others. Or they worked for you but not for your students. Tears in our eyes, many of us called IT for help.

But those IT folks are no fools. They never answer their phones; who wants to deal with angry faculty members? When, finally, one of my colleagues tracked down a “secret” IT phone number, a peace delegation of IT diplomats agreed to come to my department to calm us all down.

No, they couldn’t provide any more (or, in fact, any) actual IT support, but, they said enthusiastically, they would set up a special tutorial so we could all be trained to use the new thing. It would take only a few hours of our time.

Welcome to the do-it-yourself university.

It did not occur to the IT gang that many of us don’t have the time to be taught the idiosyncrasies of pointing and clicking through this particular website. Or that we wouldn’t want to. They were crestfallen when someone pointed this out to them. But it isn’t their fault. The DIY university has become an ingrained idea: Not only should we do everything ourselves; we should all be happy to do so. Whistle while you work because that work isn’t going to get done all by itself, is it?

Take research, for example. Over the years, as our library evolved from a library into a self-service “information center,” reference librarians disappeared like buffalo from the plains. If you go to the information desk at the main library you will confront a work-study student who may—or may not—know where the restrooms are, but probably can’t help you find that obscure journal you need. After all, you should be able to find that yourself.

Underneath all the chirpy language about personal convenience and control is something more sinister. As in so many other sectors of American life, the DIY university is really an excuse to cut costs by firing the staff members who used to help with all the tasks we now get to do ourselves. Booking travel? Sure, I can navigate Expedia as well as the next guy. Managing grants and populating spreadsheets? That should definitely be a skill I have in my toolbox. Photocopying? Of course. Who doesn’t want to master the 18-step process to scan a PDF? I’ve been told I can manage my payroll deductions from a mobile app, but good luck finding someone to answer some basic questions about it all.

For administrators the DIY university makes sense in two directions. First, all the money that the institution saves by letting go of the support staff can be used to hire more administrators, for which there is a never-ending need. Second, the staff cuts come with no institutional downside. Everything still gets done; faculty members are simply expected to do what the staff used to handle. Faculty time is price-less—as in, it has no value. A win-win!

In that sense the DIY university is about saving money by shifting costs from people who actually knew how to do those things (the support staff) to people who are often inept at them (the faculty). At the DIY university we are less concerned about getting things done well than we are about getting them done cheaply. Sort of like that bathroom-tile project you botched because you didn’t want to shell out for a professional.

DIY isn’t just about “doing,” however. It’s also about paying for things we once thought were, you know, part of the terms of our employment.

Take, for example, the brilliant DIY move the chair of my wife’s department made a few years ago. To please administrators and “reduce costs,” she had the phones ripped out of all faculty offices. When my wife asked how she was supposed to communicate with students and colleagues, she was told to use her cellphone. Surely there’s no problem giving out a personal cellphone number to hundreds of students, right? Brilliant!

No phones, no IT, no library staff, no HR. But why stop there?

Perhaps in the future we could eliminate the registrar’s office by making faculty members responsible for scheduling their own classes. The start of each term could be a festive frenzy like a reality-TV show: Survivor: Race to the Classroom! As we discover new frontiers in cost sharing, the library could make money by charging faculty members each time they checked out a book. Professors, in turn, could charge students when they came to see us outside of class time. Call it a “classroom overage” fee, not “office hours.” Once you get with the DIY program, there’s no end of creative ideas.

Of course, I did feel particularly bad for my colleagues going through the tenure process this fall. They were required to manage their dossiers using the platform “Research in View,” a particularly gruesome system in which all pegs, no matter their shape, are forced into the same round hole. The system malfunctioned more than the “new and improved” Carmen. Suffice it to say that, for many of those colleagues, work sometimes disappeared from view entirely when they entered it, causing some, tears in their eyes, to pull out their hair.

They couldn’t attend the Carmen tutorial because they had to attend a special workshop to learn how to work around the kinks of “Research in View.” Such is life at the DIY university.

Steven Conn is a professor and director of public history at Ohio State University. 

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