Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A critique of the much-touted B.A.P

In recent weeks, the B.A.P. (Boiler Advancement Proposal, proposal has come to the forefront of campus politics and discussion. At first I was slightly off-put by the obnoxious and dubious flyering practices, but I decided to give the proposal a fair look. Here is a thorough compendium of my thoughts regarding the proposal.

My main reservations are not concerning the fee part or the overall goal; they are about the proposal itself.

The proposal is very poorly written, imprecise and ambiguous in its wording throughout, and often lacks a clear direction or purpose. I suppose this is too general for any useful debate, so let's elaborate, section by section:

1. Why is there a list of organizations in support? Is this even relevant to the proposal aside from political reasons? Does it directly affect how the plan is structured or administered? I see no purpose for this except to impress cursory readers.

In the few weeks since the marketing campaign (as it were) was launched, I have had few substantiative debates of the merits of the proposal. Grandstanding tactics like listing supporters before explaining what it is that enlisting their support for is probably contributing to the vague notions of the program proposal's (good and bad) points.

2. The mission statement is slightly confounded, in my opinion. Isn't the quality of life enhanced by co-curricular activities? Which is the cause and effect here? Next phrasing difficulty: "exploration of funding" sounds like the work of some sub-committee meeting at a random time on the weekend, groveling over audit logs and mundane details.

With all of the current Purdue Strategic Plan activity going on, wouldn't it make sense to align the language of the proposal (especially Mission and Vision) to the language and focus areas of the new strategic plan? I have been involved in other proposal-writing ventures this strategic planning cycle, and it was made very clear the imperative nature that the document cling closely to previously-outlined strategic planning goals. Here's a short hack at a mission:

"The Boiler Advancement Program strives to enhance the Boilermaker student experience by providing financial support to co-curricular and extra-curricular student activities and programs."

Sure, it could probably be polished a bit more. But as written in the proposal, its almost laughable from an authoring standpoint. Did anyone proofread this document?

3. The "Vision" suffers from similar ailments as the "Mission"; namely, that it does not suit the purpose of the particular section. The vision should move quickly from the current situation to the ideal vision made possible by the implementation of such a program. The "Vision" is not a "Needs" section. First, illuminate why the mission is relevant and important (student experience leads to better recruitment and retention), and how the proposed program will enhance this aspect (more funding leads to better quality events, more events, and so on). Using the word preeminent over and over doesn't really qualify as a vision: it is merely a happy word which any university marketing campaign cannot restrain itself using.

One of the painfully disturbing things about the whole proposal is a complete and utter lack of facts. As we all should have learned in ENGL 106/108, reputable facts come from references, citations, and peer-reviewed material. Maybe the PDF i'm looking at has a bibliography omitted and the citations printed in white, but what is there to convince me that arguments presented in the "Vision" (and throughout the whole proposal) are simply not pulled out of thin air? This is simply ridiculous and cannot be allowed in a proposal with so many implications for student life. If the authoring group is not competent enough to include a SINGLE citation in a $1.6m/year proposal, why should anyone reasonably assume the (presumably) same group of people can competently manage and disburse such a large sum?

4. The "Goals" section, at first glance, seems like a list of goals: "enrichment of campus environment" (how?),
"enhancing the collegiate environment by improving co-curricular opportunities and activities" (okay, a little more concrete, but still vague as to means)
"higher quality of programs and events" (by virtue of...?)
"Service-Learning opportunities" (is this a goal?)
"Collaboration among student organizations" (how is this beneficial, specifically?)

... After this point, it seems to devolve into a Santa-style list of "OMG WANT!" items, and phrases that sound vaguely positive. I'm not saying that some of these are bad goals; i'm asking where is the justification for the goals? I rather think that many of the items enumerated here in the goals section are good examples of activities towards certain goals, not the goals themselves. Should not each goal relate back to the "enhancement of the student experience" which we agreed upon in the mission? Instead of something very concrete like "homecoming", how about generalizing to what Homecoming provides to the entire student population (and probably alumni as well). Something such as "Increased alumni-student interaction and involvement" sounds more like a goal to me, especially if it can be succinctly explained how this relates to an enhanced student experience.

Another example could replace several items: "promote and support activities and programs which increase the cultural, societal, and intellectual awareness of students". Some obvious examples meeting this goal could include campus movie showings, concerts, diversity-related programming, and awareness programs. This can be justified on the grounds that increased student awareness in these areas promotes a more diverse and healthy academic environment, which probably can be correlated to student success and recruitment/retention. Of course, such an assertion must be supported by evidence; the academic literature concerning such issues in a college campus environment is well-developed and must be utilized to support these goals and their relationship to the program mission.

Optimally I think that there should be a half-dozen or so general goals with clearly explained benefits. From these axioms it would be much more straightforward to determine whether a suggested event is consistent with the mission and goals of the program. It would also make it more straightforward for those proposing an event to justify their requests in terms of advancing program goals.

From here, I will address some organizational shortcomings in the remainder of the composition, and defer criticism of the board composition and money distribution for a separate blog post, in the interests of keeping post lengths to merely "long" instead of "epic". I also have some worries about the specific methods outlined for the applying of, reviewing of and awarding of funds. These concerns will also be saved for a later post.

For the description of the board, a more orderly flow would be beneficial. As written, everything from the time of the meeting, to who constitutes the board, to how new board members are selected is jumbled into a single paragraph with no discernible order. Perhaps following the structure and semantics of a constitution, which practically every other valid student organization on campus is required to have, would lead to a more coherent and normalized definition of the roles, responsibilities, and bylaws of the board. On the page following, two different representations of the board structure are presented. They convey the same exact information written in the paragraph, so I am not quite sure why both are included in situ with other parts of the proposal. Also lacking is a description or rationale describing the division of board seats, which I will address in the next blog post more thoroughly.

The page labeled "Funding" has several deficiencies and lacks coherence with the rest of the paper, specifically "Goals" and "Mission". Through the rest of the paper, this disjunction between sections is rampant, and I'm kind of wondering why a mission, vision and goals were set up if they aren't adhered to throughout the rest of the proposal. Finally, there is no detail in the description of the board itself how changes to the program, or the board, are to be considered and implemented. Were there some sort of process laid out for change, I would gladly look past other deficiencies outlined

As I wrap up the first part of my critique, let me recap the main points covered so far:
1. The coherence of the whole proposal is significantly hindered by vaguely written and unfocused statement program mission, program vision, and program goals.
2. There are no citations, references, or uses of external sources for facts in any part of the proposal.
3. The description of the program board, its member composition, its procedures, bylaws, and processes for change are poorly-structured and vague, and do not follow standard formats and conventions applied to other organizations on campus.

I do value the ultimate mission of the Boiler Advancement Program, but I also contend that at an institution of higher learning such as Purdue University, a higher standard of rigor must be set by those who claim to lead and represent the student body. If writes well as one does well, then you can probably deduce the equivalent formula for competence.

Until next time,