Monday, June 27, 2016

Double-Double Development Deanlet Distress, by Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno

The Tacoma-Narrows Bridge, also called "Gallopin' Gertie," shortly before its collapse. We use this in physics classes to show engineers-to-be why resonances are good for musical instruments, but not for bridges. I was tempted to use instead an image of Epsilon Lyrare, the famous "double-double" star system (with two sets of two stars, orbiting each other.)

My college has for many years employed a series of fundraising people. Usually, the job title is "Development Officer." These people are hired exclusively the Dean, report only to the Dean (and indirectly to higher-ups such as the Provost), and don't necessarily have any academic background: the very definition of "deanlet." There have been a series of them because they have a high turnover rate. One reason for this is that they so rarely raise any funding.

One such Development Officer was fired shortly after the rejection of a $40k grant that I applied for from a private foundation. Hey, rejection happens in the hypercompetitive field of astronomy: fewer than 1 in 3 astronomy Ph.D.s ever get tenure or other reasonably secure jobs doing astronomy, so a 25% acceptance rate when applying for grants is doing great. What struck me was that this Development Officer's job had become totally dependent on the success of this one grant (from an astronomer) for $40k, the overhead from which wouldn't even come close to paying this person's annual salary. This says to me that these people don't know much about the game they're playing.

Another Development Officer hit up as a potential source of funding the local, marginally solvent, minor-league baseball team. You can guess how that worked out: no, the ball wasn't hit out of the park. It occurs to me that if you want to raise money from private sources, shouldn't you try places where it isn't public knowledge that they are struggling for money—such as at the local Rotary club, or a country club, or a profitable corporation, or any of the local casinos, or a bank?

Another Development Officer COST us thousands of dollars, in lost work hours. The plan was a science extravaganza, the highlight of which was to be a talk by a very famous astronaut. This Development Officer assuredly proclaimed that an acquaintance could get the very famous astronaut to give a talk. Only after burning up much of a semester's worth of a faculty committee's time did anyone think to phone the very famous astronaut's office. It turned out that the very famous astronaut charges a hefty speaker's fee, obviating the talk, and the rest of the extravaganza made like the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge collapse. Good thing the advertising hadn't gone out.

A year later, this Development Officer cheerfully recommended that I apply for a grant from a crank organization. Even more disturbing was that, shortly after starting on the job, ANOTHER Development Officer ALSO suggested PRECISELY THIS. Kids, in the unlikely event that I do get such a grant, since what this organization funds is nonsense that my science doesn't strongly resemble, taking such a grant may prevent me from getting subsequent grants from reputable sources, such as NASA or NSF, who don't like to be seen funding cranks, one reason being Congress doesn't like it. What are these Development Officers going to think up next for me? Casting horoscopes?

My duplicate double-dose of distress was delivered by a different Development Officer, who had previously been Development Officer at another university in our system. He knew that I was building an astronomical observatory. He also knew that the other university had one. He also knew they were building a new dome for a new telescope that they were also having built. He then assumed they wouldn't use the old telescope anymore, so he suggested to me that they might give it to me. I explained to him that would be unlikely, since the old one is still useful, especially for their students. It sits in its own dome that they don't need for the new telescope, since it'll have its own—but more to the point, this telescope weighs over a ton and is worth $1 million. I've always gotten along with my colleagues at this other university fine, but they are NOT going to just hand over to me a capital asset of that size, just like that.

What gasts my flabber is that recently, ANOTHER Development Officer ALSO suggested to me PRECISELY THIS: that this astronomical observatory hand over to me a million-dollar telescope, just like that. Apparently, when Development Officers hear "telescope," they think of something that costs $200 that amateur astronomers (heaven bless 'em) pick up, take outside into their backyard, and look through, for fun. Something that weighs tons and costs millions of 2016 dollars, such as what professional astronomers have been doing research with for the past 150 years, doesn't even occur to them, even though they might have heard of Hubbble Space Telescope (since I bring in grants from my project on it, without their help), which they might have heard cost billions, being in Outer Space and all.

Do Development Officers think that bio labs give away electron microscopes, and that chem labs give away mass spectrometers? Even if these things are obsolete, wouldn't one think that a lab needing money might try to SELL them? Even if they don't work at all, wouldn't one wonder what one can get for PARTS? SURELY, these deanlets CAN'T be THIS out of touch with reality? Or have I picked a bad week to quit taking amphetamines again?

- Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno


  1. Commenting because no one else is, because I appreciate Froderick's post (new content!), and because it seems related to other trends we have been discussing. Our fearless leaders in higher ed certainly seem intent on getting rid of anybody who knows anything about higher ed.

  2. We picked up a VP of Fundraising and Development last year.

    A friend of the current president, so I was only too happy to assume it represented the kind of good-ole-boyism that this part of the country is known for.

    But our fundraising is up by about twenty times this guys rather inflated salary, so it is clear that he at least knows to ask for donations from people who have some money and I have nothing to bitch about on this front.

    For now, anyway. We'll see if the trend continues.

    There is a department in my uni that gets donations of valuable discarded equipment, but they come from local industrial concerns who hire the graduates of that same department in numbers. I assume they see it as a way of supporting the skills of their future hirees as well as a tax write off.

    But so far I haven't been able to secure even a few thousand dollars worth of obsolete electronics from other academic sources, much less the kind of capital equipment Frod is talking about.

  3. Corrections:

    "Lyrare" should be "Lyrae".

    "...hired exclusively the Dean..." should be "...hired exclusively by the Dean..."

    "...150 years..." should be "...227 years..." since I had the Dearborn Refractor and Lord Rosse's Leviathan telescope in mind, but had overlooked William Herschel's 40-foot telescope, which became operational in 1789, and which even the strongest human could not possibly pick up.

  4. It is interesting how widespread this phenomenon occurs. We also, without influence from RYS/AWC/CM, have always referred to such ilk as "deanlets", and there's just too many of them clogging up the arteries.

  5. My school is up to sextuplet levels of deanlets. We also call them the 'zombies' because they are dead (fired) and don't even know it.

  6. I would've called the Development Officer's bluff and dialled a colleague at the institution building the new scope.

    "Hey, are you guys going to do anything with that old scope since you're getting a new one? Because if you aren't, we were wondering if we could have it!"

    Then I would've put it on speakerphone so the laughing would reverberate down the hall.

    1. One of the nice things about astronomy is that it's such a small field. There are only at most 20,000 professional astronomers on Planet Earth: it's very much a global village. As I tell students, "Don't be the village idiot."

      Worse, since my colleagues all know me, the SECOND time I phoned them to call the bluff of a Developmemt Dingleberry, they'd assume I was involving them in ANOTHER prank. Their likely response the second time around would no doubt be, "SURE! When would you like to pick it up?" The ensuing hilarity at the deanlet's expense would be something I'd rather not think about.

    2. Oh, but thinking about it was great amusement, and I imagined a result similar to yours:

      "Sure, you can have it, but I need you to pick it up this week. If you haven't got it by trash day, I'll just wheel it out to the curb for anyone else who wants it."

      Then I'd ask Development Dingleberry if they have a van...

  7. Watch it, that's what they say here in California, invariably after something astonishingly and inappropriately intimate or disgusting!

    (If I wanted to know about people's sex lives or troubles with potty training, I'd become a politician.)