Scott Walker has proposed higher education budget reforms and many people in higher education are unhappy.
One of them, a doctoral candidate in journalism and mass communications named Michael Mirer, took to the pages of the Washington Post to share his gripes in an article headlined: "Scott Walker thinks my university has fat to trim. Yet my department is barely scraping by." Mirer evidently hoped that by sharing his personal experience he would show that the proposed cuts were deleterious and unreasonable.
But he inadvertently makes the opposite case.
The heart of Mirer’s argument concerns the loss of “non-essential” long distance telephone service. And at some level, you feel for him. The writer believes the phone calls he makes for dissertation interviews are essential but the university, having “endured” previous budget cuts, disagrees. Mirer is unhappy that he cannot make his calls using traditional long-distance service from a landline and tells us he feels mounting “panic” as he tries.
You might think that one of the nation’s leading academic communication programs would be a good place to make a long-distance phone call.
Yet there I was on a cold January morning, the interview I needed to get less than 15 minutes away, panic mounting as each attempt to dial out on my department-issued speakerphone produced an electronic wail rather than a ring tone. I’m writing my dissertation on how Web sites owned by sports teams and leagues challenge our society’s most deeply held values about journalism. I collect my data by talking to the people who work for these sites. I need a working phone. My cell was acting as my voice recorder, so I couldn’t use it to make calls — not that the reception in my office is good enough to be trusted.
During one of the many rounds of budget cuts the University of Wisconsin has endured over the past few years, the department ended all nonessential long-distance service. This was essential to me, I explained to the front-office staff. I am hoping to log about 25 hours of interviews with people who are outside the university’s 608 area code. Long-distance phone calls cost less than 4 cents per minute; the entire project would cost about $60, surely something could be worked out? Could I pay for it myself? Write a grant? They didn’t think so.
There’s no using the telephone in, of all places, the communication department. The budget is too tight. The phone jack in my office is a vestige of a time when the state invested in higher education.
The phone jack, as it turns out, also represents something else: The kind of bloat and indolence that too often characterizes bureaucracies – academic and otherwise – in the government sector. And the irony isn’t that a leading academic communications program won’t fund endless long distance calls for students, it’s that a prospective PhD in mass communications would be so ignorant about, well, mass communications.
Mirer complains that because his cell was acting as his voice recorder, he “couldn’t use it to make calls.” Mirer doesn’t tell us what kind of cell phone he uses, but the fact that it has a voice recorder suggests that it’s some kind of smart phone. And, if so, he can solve his problem with a $10 app. He could choose from TapeACall ($9.99) or Call Recording ($10/month) or Call Recorder ($10 cents/min) or CallRec.me ($9.99/month) or Recorder (99 cents for the app, $1.99/hour) or GoogleVoice (free for incoming calls).
If it's not a smart phone, there are literally dozens of ways to communicate online with just a computer and Internet access. Mirer complains that Skype is “glitchy.” Okay, try GoogleChat or Uberconference or something else.
The obvious question: Why should an assembly line worker in, say, Menomonee Falls pay taxes to fund 1980s-style long distance when there are scores of free or almost-free alternatives?
The obvious answer: She shouldn’t.