The great fractal college experiment

Fusun Akman

Fusun Akman stands outside Milner Library at Illinois State University holding her face mask. (COMMUNITY WORD PHOTO)


Fractals are shapes that repeat themselves at smaller and smaller scales, as broccoli florets are wont to do. I have been thinking of fractals geopolitically: whatever is happening in the world is happening in the U.S. is happening in Illinois is happening in Bloomington-Normal. We who live in the fact-based world are depressed and scared and angry. Nations are depressed, political blocs are depressed, my neighborhood block is depressed, my colleagues and students are depressed.

Mid-September, as I write this, Putin has poisoned more dissidents, Colorado weather is in Sharknado territory, fires are burning from sea to shining sea, multiple freak hurricanes are moving in, evictions are at full speed, ICE is sterilizing jailed immigrants, and Illinois State University where I work is tumbling into a maelstrom. Government officials muse on the deep state and the long shadows on their ceilings. The sun has not risen in San Francisco for several days. How and why did we get here?

If you ask The Daily Tar Heel of UNC, this is simply a Clusterfuck. Denizens of Asimov’s Foundation universe see a Seldon Crisis with internal and external conflicts coming to a head concurrently. Matrix fandom begs to differ; obviously, we have discovered the Red Pill. Futurists say we are at a Singularity, since the sum total of human intelligence seems to have been misplaced. The Death Star is upon us and so are the Dementors.

I zoom in to smaller florets. In perfect lockstep with the federal government, shared governance is unilaterally abolished at Illinois State University. The administration has abandoned all pretense of collaboration with stakeholders (corporate talk for the corporation that we are), including the instructors/staff. We have been declared essential workers. Milner Library was open to maskless hordes till Labor Day despite the contagion worries of its staff as (1) cruelty is the point or (2) it made us look like we were open. Student workers are not being told which of their charges are sick, so they fear they will be next. ISU knows nothing about how many quarantine rooms are available because “the numbers change from day to day.” Nothing is under control.

We are the control experiment within the control experiment.

CEO has been allegedly and photographically observed sans mask enjoying a fundraiser at establishment owned by a trustee. Nah, he says, he did everything right, and tsk tsk, students should not have been partying with the Nelk Boys in Normal. He could shoot somebody on School Street and nobody would care! Not the State Radio (We Gladly Teach People What ISU Says They Should Think), nor the student paper. Accountability has vanished. What we see on national news every day is what you get here. If you squint just the right way, the Emperor is clothed and bemasked.

It’s broccoli all the way down.

But we are testing now! You see, we are saved! Never mind we did not bother until students were back in town. We were going to do it earlier … faster … bigger … but we were thwarted by the HHS. So we let faculty decide whether they want to go online. We would not want to give orders from above, no sir, never done that. Instructors have been asked whether their bosses would graciously let them teach online. If not, well … as one trustee said, shared governance means faculty have a say in stuff, but they can’t be the deciders 100%. After all, they are the ones who … teach.

It’s fine, it’s perfectly fine that we are not counting students who live off campus among the infected. Nor the employees. Not our problem. What, you say 31 out of 35 tested positive at Chi Omega? Where did you hear that? We don’t talk about fraternities or sororities. Other colleges may, but we have no control over them at all. They are off-campus. We are having productive talks with the mayor, business owners (cannot let businesses close … we’ll fine the patrons if they get too rowdy). Productive talks are widely known to be the best preventive measure. Also, we have high numbers because we test a lot. Have we heard this before? Yes, at the very top. Fashionably fractal.

Of course we abide by science! We have the best scientists on payroll at ISU. Their job is to educate us on what Covid-19 is and not what it will be. Wow! We had no idea, seeing as nobody had been following the news. We feel safer now that we know what it is. These scientists are not extolling the virtues of the admin much now, but they were, a while ago. They had the best words. They said we were fine. If it were not for these negative people gumming up the works, some say, we would still have been fine.

An over-twenty-percent positivity rate does quell toxic positivity, naturally.

If only hundreds of faculty, staff, students, and community members had signed an open letter to our CEO in June, predicting all that happened so far and proposing perfectly reasonable solutions … to be repeated indefinitely at larger scales through the nation and the world… they did not, so shame on them.

And so it goes. We find ourselves trapped within the florets of entangled thoughts, forever feeling we’ve been here before. Because we have. Brexit, 2016 elections, fine people with tiki torches, Amazon burning, gutted institutions, Russian trolls, fake news, George Floyd. Our vibes are so messed up we cannot even get our neighbors to wear masks to save their lives and ours. Only perverts wear masks.

If we could do one thing, one thing only, to stop the insanity, what would it be? One small action that would reverberate from our town all the way through to the top? So that we could start sorting out the rest of our griefs?


Fusun Akman, Professor, Illinois State University

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and most definitely do not reflect the positions or views of Illinois State University.

1 comment for “The great fractal college experiment

  1. Karen K.
    October 4, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Excellent overview of the situation. None of this was unpredictable in May & June yet the administration at ISU put their heads in the sand hoping this pandemic would just “disappear”.

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