The University as Farm Club

The good news: the highest paid public employee in each of the fifty states works for an academic institution.  The bad news: not one of them really has anything to do with education.  In Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Delaware the highest paid state employee is a university president, in Maine it a law school dean and in North and South Dakota, New York and Massachusetts it is a medical school dean.  In every other state except Utah the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach (a hockey coach in New Hampshire).  Only Utah has as its highest compensated employee someone who may actually be involved in education, but that figure is still emblematic: a plastic surgeon.

Clearly, a major purpose of the American university is to be a farm club for the NFL and the NBA, something that baffles non-Americans.  And well it might, since supporting professional sports has absolutely nothing to do with the true mission of the university, and football and basketball programs suck up resources that might otherwise benefit education.  In the year 2011-2012 only West Point showed a profit in athletics; all those revenues, especially from TV, never see the light of academic day but are simply pumped back into athletics.  And it is still not enough, forcing universities to find more money, typically through so-called student fees, which are easier to increase than tuition.  It has been calculated that 99 major schools each funneled an average of $5 million more into their athletic programs by employing student fees and “university subsidies.”  And though unlikely, if all the money donated to the athletic programs of these institutions went instead to the real university, each would see an average increase in income of $12 million.

Of course any money saved would not automatically go to instruction, equipment, research, faculty or staff.  All the evidence demonstrates much if not most of it would end up funding the central administrations, which are growing at a phenomenal rate, both in terms of numbers and compensation.  Vice-presidents/associate provosts are being created for every conceivable administrative niche, many of them redundant and the vast majority of them having absolutely nothing to do with actual education.

My former employer, the University of New Mexico, lists 45 individuals under the headings “University Officers” and “University Administration,” to which may be added 15 Deans.  There is an Executive VP of Administration, apparently because the administration is so large that it must itself be administered.  There is a VP of Equity and Inclusion, a VP of Human Resources, an Assoc. VP of Student Development and a Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and if that does not cover students, add a VP for Student Affairs and a Dean of Students.  What can all these people possibly do bedsides draw big salaries?  And at UNM the Athletic Director is actually a VP, which in a way is a burst of
honesty.  And remember, these numbers remain steady or actually increase at a time when faculty slots are going unfilled because of “budgetary constraints.”

All these people are compensated at a level generally far above that of the staff and faculty.  The median salary of a public university president is now $440,000, having increased 4.7% in 2011-2012, a rate that outstrips inflation and the raises for faculty and staff (and American workers in general), which are frequently missing altogether.  A study of 145 schools revealed absolutely no relationship between the quality of the institution and the pay of its president, but try telling that to boards of regents, who constantly claim a good (read “expensive”) president is essential for a good university.

The American university is becoming a joke.  Yes, an excellent education is still available, at least in the sciences and engineering – and of course business – and especially at the graduate level.  But while faculties are stagnant or even shrinking, administrations and athletic programs are growing and absorbing more and more resources, which means skyrocketing tuitions.  Students and taxpayers get to pay for all these drones, and meanwhile the institution is making huge amounts of money off its unpaid “student” athletes, allowing for more administrative and athletic growth.  Congratulations on acquiring both a degree and a couple hundred thousand in debt.

There is no reason to believe this will change.  The boards of regents at public schools are typically political appointees, more concerned with image than substance and committed to “serving the people,” who of course essentially see the university as a sports venue and perhaps a job-filler.  And the prime directive of any government, as the current President of the United States is demonstrating, is to defend and increase its power.  Sure, the NFL and NBA could support all those football and basketball programs with their spare change, but why should they when students and taxpayers are doing it for them?

Finally, from personal experience: Mike Locksley, the recently fired football coach of UNM, who in two years won two games, made as much money in one year as I made in 31 years of teaching.  He immediately found another job.

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The Nature of the University

 

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators 

            The University is a free marketplace of ideas, not a technical-vocational institute, social action agency or sports facility.  It’s faculty and students; all else is support.

 

 

 

 

Warding off pressures from the
outside community, especially political interests, to alter its practices has
always been a fact of life for the American university, which has mounted a generally
successful guard against such threats to its independence.  Now, however, the very nature of the
university is being challenged, as the proponents of new social trends have
allied themselves with sympathetic and often powerful elements within the university
itself.  The traditional understanding of
the university as an independent forum for the free examination of ideas is
being attacked in favor of a concept of the university as an agency for direct
social action, its prime concern no longer the search for truth, but immediate
social utility.

 

The university has long been seen as
an “ivory tower,” isolated not from reality, but from the constantly
changing political, social and economic winds of the outside world, from the
forces that constantly attempt to interfere with its central mission of seeking
the truth.  Its service to society has
been indirect: the discovery of truth and the creation of educated citizens,
who might then directly serve society’s interests.  In contrast, the new university is to serve
society directly, participating immediately and directly in the social and
economic developments deemed important by society and producing individuals to
fill specific community needs.
Curriculum is to be determined by social utility rather than
intellectual curiosity, and if need be, truth must take a back seat to that
utility.

 

In accordance with its traditional
mission the university has struggled, not always successfully, to remain
apolitical and independent of the surrounding society, which inevitably seeks
to impose its current vision of things.
Whether that vision revolves around Catholic theology, Nazi ideology,
anticommunism or multiculturalism is quite irrelevant; the university must be
free to chase ideas down whatever currently unpopular or offensive road they
might lead.  Nothing justifies the
abridgement of this independence, and if the university is a state supported
institution, the taxpayers and government must understand that claiming and
exercising any right to interfere is immediately harmful to the university’s
mission.  Apart from managing the
institution, the primary responsibility of a university administration is to
protect it from such outside interference, a task that most administrators are
not performing very well.

 

Current trendy visions of higher
education seek to turn this all on its head and render the university more,
rather than less, dependent on outside forces.
Such can not fail to politicize the university and limit its tradition
of free inquiry, making it increasingly a voice of the people or more likely,
government, rather than the voice of the truth.
This is pernicious enough, but such a dependent relationship can only
grow worse, as outside powers send in more tendrils, further undermining
institutional autonomy.  And a decade
down the line those outside interests may no longer seem as benign or
progressive, as the momentary concerns of a democratic society continually
change.

 

Free expression, that most delicate
and dangerous of basic rights, is central to the university, as it indeed is to
a free society in general.  But while
limits on free speech will certainly injure society, they will with equal
certainty kill the university.  It simply
can not survive strictures placed on the free examination and discussion of
ideas.  Regardless of what society wishes
at the moment, the individual on campus must be free to speak his mind, subject
only to the single prohibition of not creating an immediate physical danger.

 

To limit expression, as proponents
of the new university would do, on the grounds of offensiveness, psychological
injury, perceived or real damage to society or simply unpopularity is to kill
free speech.  That the perpetrators may
have the goal of improving society is irrelevant; whatever the motives, free
speech is still dead, which inevitably paves the way for those whose motives
are manifestly unattractive.  It is a
tiny step from prohibiting offensive expression to prohibiting politically
unacceptable expression, from banning criticism of a group to banning criticism
of the government.

 

Also vital to the university is
humanism, the assertion that human beings have a dignity and worth quite apart
from heaven, that they are free to shape their destiny and that the primary
purpose of society is to serve man rather than god.  And part and parcel of humanism is another
curious idea discovered by the Greeks: that of the individual.  This is the notion, in theory fundamental to
our society, that the individual has a value apart from the group and
consequently ought to be judged according to his individual characteristics
rather than those of the group.

 

Defending the individual and
resisting the group judgments that are fundamental to tribalism and social
oppression is an unending struggle and is being bitterly fought on the American
university campus.  The individual,
whether student or faculty, is the basic unit of the university, the single
mind that examines and debates ideas, and the group must suppress that
individual in order to create a common voice for itself.  As history amply demonstrates, subordination
of the individual to the group inevitably generates falsehoods, smothers new or
different ideas and generally injures the pursuit of truth that is the prime
directive of the university.  Mr. Spock
notwithstanding, in the context of the university the needs of the one far
outweigh the needs of the many,

 

The university is a collection of
individuals, not groups, and each is free to sing his own song, regardless of
whether any harmonies result.  It is by
definition a contentious place, and a university where “consensus”
reigns, even concerning the nature and mission of the university itself, is one
that has to some degree failed.  And a university
that requires universal agreement with any idea has become its own
antithesis.  The university must defend
the examination of all ideas, even those that threaten it, or the free
marketplace of knowledge will become a company store.

 

Insofar as the university
constitutes a forum for the examination of any idea it is democratic, but the
institution itself is not a democracy.
It posits a basic inequality between the two groups that constitute it,
faculty and students. and on the basis of that inequality assigns authority to
the faculty.  Students are free (and in
fact should be encouraged) to challenge any idea propounded by the faculty and
even challenge the competency of the professor, but they are nevertheless subordinate.  Students or faculty may organize themselves
as democratic entities, but the classroom can only be an autocracy, albeit one
in which the individual is free to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes.

 

The university is not so much a
thing or a place as a concept, that of the free exchange of ideas.  The campus, with its classrooms, libraries
and laboratories, is not the university, but simply a support structure.  The staff – presidents, provosts,
secretaries, librarians, custodians, etc. – are not the university, but only
its attendants, convenient for its functioning.
Insofar as the university is a physical entity at all, it is the students
and faculty, and all others serve the single purpose of facilitating the
dialogue between these two groups.  When
Peter Abelard, fired from the 12th century University
of Paris, lectured students on his
own in an open field across the Seine, he and they constituted
a kind of minimalist university.

 

Unfortunately, for most Americans,
especially politicians and businessmen, the university is simply an
institution, another business in which society invests resources in the
expectation of a product.  The university
does create a sort of product – education – but understanding it as just
another business leads inevitably to the demand for the immediate utility that
is at odds with its essential nature.  If
we serve the university with our tuition, taxes and gifts, the argument goes,
then the university ought to serve us by training new workers, creating jobs
and contributing to the economic and social well-being of the community.  The inevitable result: the university becomes
more of a technical-vocation institute and less of a university.

 

The university does of course serve
society and provide a return, but in an indirect and long-term way, by
examining ideas and by producing educated citizens.  Whether those ideas or that education has any
immediate or obvious utility to society is unimportant.  To demand otherwise may create a socially
useful institution, but one that is no longer a university.

 

Though most generally a free
marketplace of ideas, the specifically recognized purpose of the university is
education.  Exactly what
“education” means is of course a matter of intense debate, since the
term can reasonably cover everything from forced political indoctrination to
training a physicist to learning to survive on the streets of America’s
cities.  Most would agree that the first
and last of these are not proper parts of a university education, but they have
appeared in the form of sensitivity training and various outreach
programs.  Graduate schools and the
training of professionals in the arts and sciences are certainly a facet of the
university education, but the prime focus must be the undergraduate student.

 

The traditional core function of the
university is providing the undergraduate student with a liberal  education, that is, a general education that presents
the individual with a basic understanding of the universe, of the human
experience and of himself.  It will also
provide the intellectual tools for further exploration and the satisfaction of
the basic urge that ultimately lies behind the university and in fact the very
discovery of rationalism: curiosity.  It
is not too much to say that the university is a monument to curiosity, the
drive to question and figure out why, all to the dismay of the ignorant, the
complacent and the defenders if the established order.

 

Thus has the university helped to
create and then to serve the free and progressive society.  It is our great misfortune that this
understanding of its nature is fading away.

The Content of a Liberal Education

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators.

The content of a liberal education is that which teaches you to think.

 

 

 

            The foundation idea of a liberal
education goes back to the medieval university, which was in turn heavily
influenced by classical notions about the educated man.  The content of that education will of course
no longer do, since the early university existed in an intellectual environment
dominated by Christian theology and an uncritical acceptance of classical ideas
(at least those that did not conflict with the Church).  Both held the university in the confining
grip of truth based on unquestioned and unquestionable authority, that of the
ancients and that of the true faith.  In
addition to limiting academic freedom this fact of late medieval life created a
basic curriculum that overemphasized some subjects, such as theology, and
neglected others, such as the natural sciences.
Fortunately, the decline of the Church and the rise of modern science,
which broke the spell of the ancients, ultimately undermined the idea of
authority-based truth, and the curriculum of the modern university has expanded
into every conceivable area.

A modern liberal education has two
essential components.  The first of these
is the clutch of intellectual skills necessary for any intelligent interaction
with the world and the acquisition of further knowledge.  The most basic of these tools, the ability to
read and write, to calculate and to solve simple problems, are acquired in the
process of primary education, though the sad state of American public education
can no longer guarantee this.  A liberal
education should build on these skills and develop further the individual’s
ability to read analytically and critically and write clearly and
persuasively.  It should train him how to
examine and approach logically any sort of problem or situation and how to
argue and defend a proposition, whether in speech or in writing.  In a word, a liberal education ought to teach
one to think.  If the university did
nothing more than this, its existence would be more than justified.

The individual who can think,
analyze and communicate is equipped to continue learning on his own, but a
proper liberal education will also provide a second component: a broad basis of
general knowledge that will give the student a leg up, as it were, in his
further education.  The emphasis here is
on the broad and general, the acquisition of the information and ideas
necessary for a basic understanding of how the world, both natural and human,
works.  From this one can easily proceed
to a deeper understanding of any specific aspect of the nature of things.

A liberal education thus requires a
grounding in both the sciences and the humanities.  In the case of the sciences, the goal is not
a detailed knowledge of any particular science, but rather an understanding of
what the various sciences deal with, the important questions to which they seek
answers and the general principles upon which they operate.  More important than an expertise in any
specific scientific field is a thorough understanding of science itself,
what it is and what it is not and how it functions.  Such an understanding of science and the
fundamental principles behind our universe will allow the educated individual
to recognize and counter the pseudo-science, fantasy and general irrationality
that constantly threaten to overwhelm the human race.

A similar goal is sought in the
humanities, that is, a broad understanding of the human condition in all its
aspects.  Such an understanding requires
some exposure to and basic familiarity with history, religion, philosophy, the
political and social sciences and the arts.
Again, the point is not to acquire knowledge in depth, but rather to
gain a general understanding of these fields, particularly as tools for
understanding the individual and society and making reasoned judgments about
them.

Especially important in this regard
are history and literature, both of which provide direct access to the human
experience and thus contribute immediately to an understanding of
ourselves.  Engaging in these disciplines
will not only reveal the tremendous variety found in human society, but in
doing so will also illuminate the general human condition.  To study the Greeks or Zulus or Chinese is
simply to study ourselves from another perspective; to read the literature of Russia
or India or Brazil
is to see ourselves through different cultural eyes.

For
the American university student study of the history and literature of western
civilization ought to be the starting point for this examination of human
culture.  This western tradition
comprises the values, perspectives and methodologies that have shaped our own
society and thus has the most direct relevance to an understanding of
ourselves, who are products of that society, regardless of superficial ethnic
differences.  It is necessary to
comprehend the forces that shaped one’s own point of view before examining that
of others.  And for good or for ill
western culture and its ideas have had and will continue to have a dramatic
impact on the rest of humanity, making a study of the west a vital component of
the liberal education of every individual, irrespective of his cultural
origins.

A broad understanding of ourselves
and the world about us and the ability to think analytically and communicate
clearly, these are the goals of a liberal education.  While not filling any specific workplace
niches, a general education of this sort possesses a social utility far more
important than that of any professional training.  Common sense and the evidence of history
demonstrate that the greater the portion of the citizenry that is generally
educated, the better the society is able to solve its problems, employ its
resources and improve its material and intellectual circumstances.  Such is especially the case in a democratic
state, which regularly asks its citizens to render political judgments, and it
was the discoverers of urban-centered democracy, the Greeks, who first realized
that a general education was a basis for civic virtue, that a general education
was in fact a political education.

In the modern world of course
political education has increasingly come to mean simply political
indoctrination, which has rarely, if ever, been a benefit to any society.  A proper political education instead consists
of a general understanding of society and history and the intellectual tools to
employ that understanding in shaping the political environment.  Such is obviously not popular with
governments and politicians of any stripe, since a liberally educated society
is the most resistant to political oppression, the least likely to be taken in
by appeals to emotion rather than reason.
Democracy in particular rises and falls with the education of its
electorate, and the ignorant voter is an easy target for demagoguery and
sloganeering, for the fear mongers and feel-good politicians.  Recent American history amply demonstrates
the serious danger posed by an uneducated electorate.

A final note about a liberal
education: it is work.  While learning
can be generally interesting and often fun, it still requires discipline and
effort.  Learning demands mental
exercise, memorization and practice.
Interaction and dialogue are a vital part of education, but at its root
learning is a solitary occupation of reading, writing and most important,
thinking.