08 August 2015

No Downside

The dream of an engineering-based medical school on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois has been around for a while now.  For a long time, my reflections on the issue looked something like this: Sure, some of our aspirational-peer-institutions don't have medical schools (looking at you, Princeton); yeah, it is a little odd to have a state flagship that only houses the offshoot of a prestigious medical program housed elsewhere.  Be nice not to have to travel to St. Louis or Chicago if I or my loved ones came down with some grave or complicated illness. Whatever. Smart folks who know more about the relevant factors than me are figuring it out.

Then I found myself at a campuswide faculty meeting last fall.  Can't remember which one--there were several.  I was there for the debate about the Salaita un-hiring, union issues, and racism on campus, but I stayed for the rest, so I was there when our provost, Ilesanmi Adesida took the stage.  I had anticipated that only my "it's rude to leave a meeting halfway through" instincts would keep me there, but his astonishingly tone-deaf greeting immediately pinned me to my seat.  To a roomful of people seared by the impassioned commentary from the floor that we'd just heard and the impassive response of the administrators they were speaking to, Ade's enormous smile and "It's a GREAT day for Illinois!" were just--unfathomable.  Had he been listening to anything?  Apparently not.  With no acknowledgement of the hostility, anger, and incomprehension radiating from the faculty whom he is supposed to lead, with no recognition that entire departments and programs were reeling from an administrative body-blow, he told us about the plans for the engineering-based medical school.  We were invited to meditate on that term "engineering-based medical school"--and presumably let its glory fill our souls.  

Ade's prepared remarks were followed by questions from the floor.  One of his colleagues from the College of Engineering, Andrew Alleyne, asked, "What is the downside of this project?"  I yawned internally, waiting for the predictable variation on "well, like any important endeavor this one will involve certain costs and risks...but they are easily outweighed by..."

Ade's answer woke me right up.  "There's no downside!" he said.  Prof. Alleyne, clearly surprised as well, said, "There's no downside?"  Ade repeated, "No downside!"  At which point, Prof. Alleyne asked a third time for clarification.  "No downside!" repeated Ade.

That's the point at which I started taking an interest.  A leader who can't even acknowledge the possibility of potential problems is a leader prepared to march us all to our deaths in a medical-school shaped trench. 

What becomes clear from the FOIA'ed emails about the proposed College of Medicine is the naivete of ever thinking that the issue would be determined on the basis of reason.  The process has not been shaped by questions like "How will this program benefit the State of Illinois?  How will it divert energy, political will, and resources away from other initiatives and is that diversion justified? Whose interests are being served by this project and should those interests be a priority of the state and its flagship public university?  How can medical facilities best serve the teaching, research, and service mission of the university as a whole?  How can university medical facilities best serve the health care needs of the state?"  

No. There are deep pockets that can benefit from the primacy of a Chicago-based medical center and deep pockets that can benefit from a downstate "engineering-based" medical center that competes with it. The struggle between those two sets of interests has been shaping the decision, not (it seems) the dispassionate, objective, research-based voices that one might hope to find in academia.  Perhaps those of us in the humanities are worth valuing, if only because we still remember what it felt like to think that things might work any other way.


  1. Not excited to see the University partnering with a tax evader like Carle. But hey, maybe the flagship is the new Bahamas.

  2. Good to hear from the Very Good Prof. some reflections on this complicated issue. Why do we have all these Carle related e-mails all of a sudden? Why did Wise push so hard for that Med School? Who will benefit most from the new Med School ? And most importantly, who will pay for it? I've been following this story out of the corner of my eye, mostly because a part -time neighbor, Andrew Scheinmann has been chanelling his inner Lincoln Steffen/Ida Tarbell and worked on this story and FOIAed a lot of stuff. The story has the makings of a Frank Norris novel -- unfolding still. Wise called Scheinmann "crazy" in one of her e-mails. That is good enough for me to stay on the story.