Positive outlook crucial for getting through financial crisis

Phil Schurrer and Phil Schurrer

When the weather became halfway decent, I made a trek down to Faculty Lounge – a small downtown dive where the loudest noise is Ray Anthony spilling out of a jukebox, which should have been retired long before today’s crop of students were born. It’s a place where reverse age discrimination is freely practiced: you aren’t really welcome unless you’re of an age that can remember Nixon’s vice president or when 8-track tapes were the rage as you began your career. My pal Stubby McDrool was already there and ordering from the menu. I joined him at the table and ordered a dose of artery-clogging fries and the greatest, most cholesterol-laced burger ever constructed by human hands, along with the usual malt beverage. We exchanged pleasantries, but I noticed he was quieter and more sedate than usual. Finally, I asked. ‘Frankly, Phil, I’m worried,’ he said at last. ‘The University seems to be on the ropes financially, and I don’t know what the future’s going to bring. Everyone’s affected: students are worried about the increase in tuition and department chairs and deans are wondering how to make ends meet.’ He threw his hands in the air in a gesture combining resignation and despair. ‘Well, Stubbs, this has happened before. I’m sure things were far worse during the Depression, yet the University, state and country survived and came out stronger than ever.’ ‘Heck, I know that. But Ohio’s been cutting the subsidy on a per-student basis for the past dozen years or so. The fact that the state is supposedly lining up for part of the stimulus tells me they’re broke,’ Stubbs replied. The food arrived, and we declared a hiatus in the dialogue long enough to begin to satisfy the hunger pangs. When we refilled our glasses, I dove back into conversation. ‘I’m not trying to minimize what you say, and I’ll grant you the situation’s not the best. And, it’ll probably get worse before it gets better. But you know what the big problem is?’ ‘Yeah, no money,’ he said as he grabbed more onion rings. He was beginning to sound bitter. ‘No, that’s not the big problem – that’s not the 900-pound elephant in the room, Stubbs,’ I replied. ‘The problem is people are beginning to act like there’s no hope. Whether or not Obama spends a billion, a trillion or a hundred trillion’s not the problem – or solution. We’ve been living our lives quick, fast and easy for the past 20 years or so, but that’s not how life works. And now we’ve got a wake-up call.’ ‘OK, big guy, what’s the solution?’ Stubby queried. His tone was not exactly challenging, yet I could sense there was something more behind the question than merely a search for information. ‘I don’t know. But I know what isn’t going to help. Everyone is looking for the bottom, so we can begin the climb up again. That’s not how it works. Look at the students. They come here expecting quick answers to all problems and think the proper response to any question is one of four alternatives in a multiple-choice test. But life’s not like that. You’re a trained researcher, right?’ ‘Yeah, so?’ Stubbs replied. ‘Well, you know every answer can bring more questions. And, in searching for the answer, you run across more dead ends than you can shake a stick at. Even when you find what you think is the correct answer, the probability is pretty good someone, sometime, somewhere will find something that’ll alter or toss your solution into the ash can.’ ‘OK, I can agree to that,’ Stubbs admitted. ‘So that’s the second big problem. We’re not comfortable with uncertainty. Yeah, we can do a stat analysis and specify a margin of error in our academic research, but it doesn’t hit close to home. An academic exercise doesn’t have the impact possibly losing funding does. It just reinforces what Jefferson once said: ‘A man’s pocketbook is the seat of his sensitivities.” ‘So what can we do?’ Stubby was finishing his burger. ‘Frankly, not much except to do our best. We don’t have all the answers, and we probably won’t recognize the answers until we’re in the middle of them. But if we lose hope that better times are eventually going to come, they may not and we’ll inherit something worse than federal deficits.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I guess you’d call it collective depression or anxiety.’ ‘For a conservative, you’re starting to sound like FDR,’ Stubby said, a smile breaking across his face. ‘It’s not a liberal or conservative thing. I like to think of it as a healthy outlook when everything’s going south,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure I feel any better,’ Stubby said as we got up from our seats and pulled out our wallets to pay the bill. ‘Doesn’t have anything to do with feelings,’ I concluded. ‘It’s an act of the will. We need to act as though things will get better.’ ‘Self-fulfilling prophecy?’ Stubbs said as we moved toward the door. ‘Maybe. Maybe not. But look at the alternatives. Not much out there right now. But I think it beats whatever else we can do.’ We bid goodbye and went our separate ways. I’d like to say the sun was beginning to shine as we stepped outside, but it wasn’t. But maybe I had helped Stubby a little. I like to think his shoulders were straighter. It’s a start.