Chronicling Budget Cuts: Narrating Institutional Memory in the 21st century

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts thinking about the recent round of budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Go read part 1part 2, and part 3 if you find this interesting.

One of the little things that working on the Bakken oil boom has taught me is that history is awkwardly situated to deal with the 21st century. Historians have long preferred to think of themselves as working in the “long present,” but the speed of change (and capital) in the 21st century has pushed us to think harder and work faster to keep relevant. Our long-standing practice of deliberate reading and our veneration for documents feels upset by the ephemeral blur of digital communication and the decentralization of media. If the speed of the present and the distributed and ephemeral nature of historical evidence aren’t challenges enough, we are also beset by a crisis of agency which has opened the door to objects, people, groups, even such abstractions as the environment and time has exerting agential weight in the construction of the future. As someone with largely philological training and still prone to look to the “Classics” to understand the two centuries worth of modernity, the changes have been bewildering. 

That being said, history has to adapt, and I’ve got to thinking that the budget crisis at the University of North Dakota offers an opportunity to figure out how our discipline can move at the speed of the present. The current (and by current, I mean the last couple of years) budget crisis offers a few key challenges and opportunities.

1. Evidence. The body of evidence explaining the budget cuts is highly distributed and ephemeral. Last week, for example, each division and college released another round of draft versions of their budgets here. But this clearly is not an archival location (and these are the second drafts of their budgets; I have copies of the first drafts, but I’m not entirely sure that they are still available publicly). These are pretty basic documents, but I’d struggle to find the budgets released just a year ago (although I’m sure it’s possible) for the first round of budget cuts. Moreover, these “official” documents only tell part of the story.

A simple search of my email for the word “budget” has produced thousands of documents and the prospect of a public records request to the institution for, say, all of the President Schafer’s and President Kennedy’s emails on budget cuts would produce literally thousands more. This is not even considering the correspondence at the level of the deans and departments and divisions, and various documents – minutes, agendas, memos, and the like – that spew forth from complex institutions on a daily basis.

More essential yet is a recording of the human cost of budget cuts. Since the “cutting time” began last year, there have been heartbreaking testimonials offered at public fora, outbursts at faculty senate meetings, and innumerable stories, anxieties, and conversations in the hallways, offices, and conference rooms across campus. Particularly high-profile stories sometimes appear in the media, but most of the impact of budget cuts on individuals do not make it into the Grand Forks Herald or an official email.

Fortunately, there are easy – and anonymous – ways to collect the stories of the budget crisis. One of my favorite digital history projects of the past decade was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank which used Omeka to collect people’s stories of hurricane Katrina and Rita. Similar projects have used Omeka to document the stories of 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shootings, and the developers of Omeka have shown a strong awareness of the need to protect user anonymity

The trick is with any project like this to get people to contribute.

2. The Narratives. Producing a body of evidence will not be enough, of course. Individuals will have to take on the task of using this evidence to produce narratives of the budget cutting process. There will not be just one story, and it will not be a story that can accommodate all sources of evidence. From the perspective of historical methodology, the immediacy of the crisis, our commitment to institutions and individuals, and our larger view of the goal of higher education and the state will undoubtedly shape the kinds of stories that we can tell.

The plurality of voices, stories, and perspectives is the key strength of a project like this. As a historian, I recognize that our values and commitments appear through how we speak about the past both informally and as professional practitioners. By navigating, however selectively, the deluge of evidence, we present more than simply a view on how the budget cuts happened, but we seek to identify the key moments in the process and outcomes that we hope will shape future considerations. Historians, through analyzing the record of complex events, produce a template for future actions. Identifying through analysis and narrative, the problems and successes within the process will shape the future.

3. Memory and Forgetting. As I began to mull a project like this over in my head, I looked around for recent models that presented university budget cuts as more than simply a policy and planning issue. I wanted something that introduced a more open-ended and multi-vocal oral history or even ethnography to budget cuts in higher education and didn’t find much in my admitted hasty literature search.

What struck me is how crucial institutions and institutional records are to the process of remembering and forgetting things like the trauma associated with budget cuts. Laws and rules ensure that policy decisions get recored carefully and archived in their overwhelming detail, but the human cost is often lost to the informality of the moment. As a result, budget cuts appear in the administrative record as impersonal policy decisions without the complexities of their human cost. This is an intended consequence, of course, of institutional work. It occludes pain and emotional through the rationality of its structure, and while this structure is necessary, as a historian, I can’t help but think that our responsibility is to complicate the neatness of administrative authority.

The additional benefit of the personal side of budget cuts is that they can make the massive deluge of administrative evidence legible for the future. In effect, the personal side of budget cuts can curate the administrative evidence by marking those documents that had an impact on individuals within the university community. This curation would function as a way to ensure that we both narrate and remember the unfolding of the budget crisis in a way that will inform future decisions both in North Dakota and elsewhere, communicate the human cost to a wider audience, and make the experience of the budget cuts accessible to a future generation.

Finally, years ago, I wrote a history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota, and it was very much an institutional history. The reason for this is that the university archives are a trove of administrative documents, but preserve very little in the way of personal encounters with UND’s campus, institutions, and individuals. This is both sad and rectifiable, but we have to think of our experiences at UND as contributing to the history and fabric of the place. This involve being proactive and making sure that they are recorded, curated, and narrated.

If you’re interested in being part of a project to document the budget cuts at UND, drop me a line here or on social media or over email. You know how to find me.

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