Sunday, June 3, 2012
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Thursday, December 1, 2011
When the New York Times reported that Ohio State had just signed a new football coach, paying him $4 million yearly plus bonuses, putting a private jet at his disposal, throwing in a country club membership and the other accouterments of an opulent (many would say decadent) lifestyle – a seven-year package valued at nearly $40 million – the venom in the reader responses practically dripped off my computer screen:
” The nation's false values could not be more graphically displayed by this action…”
“What a terrible waste of money.”
“This is unacceptable and perverted.”
“I am appalled at this contract. I hear from my daughter that [Ohio State] academic programs go without funding and needed supplies.”
And on and on and on…..
The Times readers have it right. By brazenly capitulating to the grotesque arms race in college sports, Ohio State has tossed its academic values into the trash bin. It has betrayed its faculty and cheapened the degree of its three hundred thousand alumni. Forget education. Forget research. Forget public service. At Ohio State the name of the game is football.
Am I taking this personally? You bet I am, and here’s why. I was a professor and administrator at Ohio State for twenty-six years. As a department chair and dean I worked my butt off trying to raise academic standards, recruiting talented faculty, raising money to strengthen programs, writing research proposals, and singing the praises of my department and college to anyone who would listen. For twenty-six years I sat through endless numbers of meetings, wrote thousands of memos, agonized over budgets, did my best to make smart decisions – and I did all this because I wanted to do my part to make the university – my university – better. My son was born in the Ohio State hospitals, my wife and ex-wife are Ohio State alums. Our family bleeds scarlet and gray.
So how do I feel about Ohio State’s decision? I feel like the university has turned its back on what I spent most of my career trying to accomplish.
Here’s how Ohio State President Gordon Gee rationalized this move: “I’m about having the best physics faculty, the best medical school faculty and the best football coach.”
Well, Gordon, you’re my friend and former colleague, and I don’t want to get personal, but you know and I know that’s pure baloney. That spin may play in some quarters, but it sure doesn’t with your thousands of current and former faculty members. Where we expected you to stand up for the academic heart of the institution, you cheapened it. Instead of using this opportunity to restore balance, you embraced the madness. Instead of acting courageously, you capitulated to the corrupt sports materialism in college athletics that is anathema to the university’s core academic values.
Sure, you’ll find thousands, maybe millions, of Ohioans who applaud your decision. For them it’s all about winning games. But for me, and for the young Ohio State economics professor laboring over a journal article, or the senior chemistry professor fighting to renew an NSF grant, or the debt-burdened medical student, or the tens of thousands of Ohio families struggling to put their kid through Ohio State – to us, this issue isn’t about football. It’s about the priorities of the institution. It’s about what Ohio State University really stands for. And now we know.
Symbolism matters in academia. In some ways, it’s more important than anything else, and understanding that is what we expect from our academic leaders. Ohio State has had more than its share of sports scandals, and these are deeply embarrassing to many Buckeyes, including me. At a time when there is public outrage about the culture of impunity in major collegiate programs, at a time when Americans are fed up with the excesses, the greed, the win-at-all-cost mentality, the hype and the hypocrisy of college sports, it’s high time for college presidents to speak out.
Now it’s time for them to say “that’s enough” and to reject the corrosive influence of out-of-control sports on American higher education. Now it’s time to rein in the excesses and restore some sanity to campuses. To stand up and defend the academic heart of the university. To put one’s money where one’s mouth is. At Ohio State, that’s a lesson yet to be learned and that fact makes me sick at heart.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Yesterday I came across a Washington Post opinion piece by Daniel de Vise lamenting the closing of Wesleyan’s WESU, the nation’s second-oldest college radio station. His blog took me back a few years to when Oxford Ohio’s WOXY, one of America’s great independent alternative rock stations, shut its doors. (I’m sure you know WOXY’s slogan: “97X BAM! The Future of Rock and Roll,” because you heard Dustin Hoffman repeat it over and over and over in Rain Man. Yes, it’s that WOXY.)
WOXY’s demise caused heartbreak among the Miami University student body. A colleague’s sophomore daughter broke down when she learned the station was pulling the big switch forever. Another listener posted on a bulletin board, “There are a lot of us who grew up listening to this station and it has provided the soundtrack to virtually our entire lives. Somebody DO something!! Seriously, I'm going to cry.”
The listener is correct. College students not only experience an extraordinary personal bond with their radio stations but, more fundamentally, the stations really do provide a soundtrack for their lives. Rock and roll comes to us when we first become aware of the universal problems of life and yet are least able to understand them. When we are in this fragile state and for a decade or two thereafter, rock and roll has the power to put us in touch with our humanity:
It is late on a bleak Sunday night in January 1972 and I am finally headed home from Ohio State’s Smith Laboratory. I’m listening to Melanie on “92X” in Columbus, Ohio. My experiment is a mess, none of the data is reproducible, and throughout the long day I could practically hear my tenure clock ticking.
Now Melanie starts another song:
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye…
In my depleted state, the lyrics seem profound. I picture my three year old daughter asleep at home and resolve to spend more time with her, to be a better father. Something makes me turn up the volume and roll down the car window, releasing the music into the frigid air…
Rock and roll has always commingled the celebration of life with a challenge to the establishment. Whether it was Elvis gyrating his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon paying tribute to illicit drugs in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, or merely the bone-jarring drumbeat from a car passing through a residential neighborhood, the music has always expressed the universal angst-ridden lament of adolescence: “I am me. I am not like you. You need to respect me for who I am and take me seriously.”
But rock and roll is much more than about seeking independence during a time of self-discovery. Hard as it is for some of us of a certain age to admit, it is also about art. The best rock and roll is creative and meaningful. But that doesn’t mean we can all appreciate it.
I have a theory, unsupported by data or deep reflection, that like ducklings people are imprinted on with the music of their youth. Each generation grows up believing that its own music is natural and attractive, and that that which follows is unpalatable and discordant.
To me, rock and roll will forever be about taking it easy in Winslow, Arizona, about meeting Memphis barroom queens, and about being busted flat in Baton Rouge. For my wife, Carole, rock and roll will forever be about asking Alice when she’s ten feet tall, and about hiding her heart because Eli’s coming.
If my theory is true, then Neil Young had it right: rock and roll is here to stay. Rock and roll is an exuberant musical reflection of the human spirit, and one way or another, that spirit will find a way to express itself, just as it did during the Cold War when pirate radio ships floated like lily pads in the coastal waters off totalitarian states.
And so, “the future of rock and roll” is still bright. The genre will continue to morph into other forms and find other venues, just as it has since the days of Bill Haley and the Comets. About all I can predict is that whatever the next form takes, I won’t like it and I won’t understand it. But that’s just fine, because the music is no longer meant for me.
And so, while our students' radio stations may be dwindling, the spirit that created their music is alive and well. One day our students will be us, carping about the young and the foolish, but still truckin’ down the road on that long strange trip, listening to the doodah man in their memories.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
What I find most interesting – and dismaying – are the dozens of reader comments following the interview. Evidently the world of higher education hates Ms. Riley and everything she stands for. One reader finds her views "threaten the fabric of our nation..", while another says "I question her integrity," going on to suggest that she is yet another one of those "political hacks who misrepresent and cherry pick to score cheap points."
And on and on:
-"What utter balderdash"
-"Why has Inside Higher Ed made this incoherent drivel its leading article?"
- "...she wants to get rid of those that don't agree with her politically."
-" …laughable mistakes and wild, unsupported generalizations"
- "Wow, someone from Wall street has the temerity to question the business practices in the academy."
-"[Her] blather is simply disgraceful!"
- "What's next, Paris Hilton's book on how to be an ethical researcher?"
Of course, this being academia, there are a few weak countercurrents:
-"In my experience Ms. Riley is much, much less wrong than almost all the academics posting here claim."
-"The truth was out there and it was found. Get used to it."
Despite the vitriolic reader comments, Ms. Riley strikes me as having thought quite deeply about tenure and the meaning of academic freedom. She may not be a pedigreed scholar, a fact that offends many of her critics, but she’s smart and thoughtful and knowledgeable. Do I agree with her recommendations and conclusions? No I don’t, in many instances. But some of them ring true and all of them are thought-provoking.
For example, she asserts that tenure reduces job mobility by locking its recipients into one place of employment. If tenure were replaced by e.g., five year contracts, would senior faculty members have more opportunity to change jobs? That’s an interesting conjecture, arguable perhaps, but certainly worthy of discussion.
And what about the oft-heard complaints that tenure provides a haven for the lazy, the incompetent, the unproductive, the disruptive, the anti-social, and the unstable? Such concerns are a serious worry to the public, but are usually brushed aside by us insiders. “Sure,” we say, “ but every barrel has a few rotten apples. Look at every big corporation and you’ll find such people. Big deal.” Is that really an adequate response to such a widely held viewpoint? Based on my own observations, I think we’re probably talking about ten percent of tenured professors.
Or how about Stanley Fish’s opinion that academic freedom, the main justification for tenure, should not extend beyond the classroom? Academic freedom, he believes, doesn’t mean professors can mouth off without consequence on any topic they happen to feel strongly about. So what about that idea? I recently read a blog by an assistant professor of education who took great offense at her chancellor’s efforts to stabilize the school’s finances. Never mind that the young professor had zero administrative experience, had no conception of the complexities of the chancellor’s job, not to mention the schools’ finances, and was unwilling even to acknowledge that her chancellor’s decades of experience counted for anything. Do tenure and academic freedom obviate the need for humility, and if so doesn’t this fact undermine the very foundation of a liberal education? (See How I Almost Became an Academic Superstar.)
One problem with tenure is that any criticism of the practice provokes black-white responses. Those who have it seemingly cannot brook any mention of its shortcomings, and those without it are seemingly hard-pressed to acknowledge any benefits.
Cary Nelson, AAUP’s current president, is one of those who can’t see any shortcomings. Actually, that’s not quite true. The one big problem with tenure, Professor Nelson evidently believes, is that universities should be more generous in granting it, even to contingent instructors. Never mind that the main reason schools hire contingent instructors in the first place is that they can’t afford to hire tenured professors. Turning a blind eye to critics, refusing to acknowledge or ameliorate problems, to consider alternatives, or to understand other viewpoints is not going to save tenure. On the contrary that’s the surest way to wreck it.
Academics are supposed to be good at on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand reasoning. So let’s get serious about fixing the shortcomings of tenure. Surely there must be ways to stop protecting the incompetent, to clamp down on unwarranted classroom politicization, to moderate the costs, to put teeth into faculty self-policing, to deal responsibly with unproductive older professors. Surely there must be ways to protect academic freedom while also providing reasonable job security for professors. Unless the professoriate stops shrugging off these kinds of concerns, soon there won’t be enough of us left to worry about. I suppose that’s one way to solve the problem.
Monday, May 16, 2011
John Fogerty’s classic 1969 song, “Bad Moon Rising,” is a tempting metaphor for the current state of American higher education:
I hear hurricanes ablowing
I know the end is coming near
I fear rivers over flowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
But in 1969 when I embarked on my academic career who could have known that there was a bad moon lying unseen below the horizon? The golden age of the American academy was just beginning. As a freshly minted PhD, my future then held the glowing promises of lifetime tenure, sabbatical leaves, conferences in exotic places, NSF research grants, bright and alert students, and the noble and unfettered pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Today, only in their wildest dreams could the vast majority of aspiring young academics entertain such fantasies.
Who in 1969 could know that in the next century
Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather,
One eye is taken for an eye.
The bad moon rising, with its bleak message of hopelessness and inevitability, is an ugly, ugly metaphor for American higher education. It is a message of despair that sees only a ruinous future. And worse, it blinds us to new opportunities by encouraging us to look backwards, to stave off as long as possible our inescapable doom by fruitlessly trying to reclaim past glories.
So here is a better metaphor, courtesy of Dr. Wu, my wife’s former T'ai Chi instructor. Dr. Wu believed that the problem with Americans is that they want to be full moons throughout their lives. But being a full moon forever is not the natural order of things. The history of civilizations and of all social and biological organisms shows that they rise, some achieve dominance, and then they all inevitably decline. Learning to decline gracefully and intelligently, to accept reality without railing pointlessly against the inevitable, and to not waste one’s precious energy lamenting for a past that will not return, in Dr. Wu’s opinion, is the mark of maturity.
The full moon of American higher education is setting and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The golden age is not coming back because it can no longer be afforded. Each passing year the irresistible forces of global competition, pressing social needs, and widening economic inequality grow stronger, and in the coming decades there is virtually no possibility that they will weaken.
A setting moon means that our future will be different in many ways and that the adjustment will be difficult. But just as an aging star quarterback can go on to find fulfillment in other arenas, so can we. The key is to accept the reality of those opportunities that have been closed off and to go on to exploit the new ones the future holds out.
The setting moon of American higher education will be dominated by economics. Declining revenues from state and federal governments, combined with intense pressure to rein in tuition increases mean most colleges and universities will get along with less money. For public universities especially, tenure track appointments will continue to dwindle. Class sizes will grow and more students will require remedial education. Research opportunities for professors will contract, and there will be even greater emphasis on controlling costs and becoming more efficient and productive.
This all sounds pretty grim, so what about the opportunities? Like any period of transition, the era of the setting moon will spawn winners and losers because the future is not preordained. The winners will be those schools that learn to compete and be self-sufficient. The winners will reassess their core mission by focusing on their strengths and ridding themselves of weak and inessential programs. They will deliver their services more efficiently than others while learning to accommodate the needs of a changing student body. They will do away with costly peripheral ventures, eliminate wasteful administrative practices, and find an acceptable balance between the oppositional forces of administrative efficiency and shared governance.
Responding to the challenges of this daunting future will require sacrifice and enlightened leadership. But the full moon is setting, as it always does and always has. What is is, and it behooves all of us, therefore, to put aside our differences, to stop yearning for what is no longer possible and to face the future realistically and imaginatively.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Membership in the “No Confidence” club is hardly exclusive. Oakland U., Idaho State, Sonoma State, Kutztown U., Kean U., Urbana U., New Mexico State, Plattsburgh State, Northeastern Illinois U., St. Louis U., South Carolina State, and Texas A&M are recent members, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Googling “university no-confidence vote” yields nearly two million hits.)
So what are faculty members so upset about? There is a smorgasbord of complaints – lavish presidential spending, favoritism in hiring, too many administrative appointments, excessive construction (on sports facilities, mostly), and inappropriate relationships with subordinates. If true, such allegations reflect either poor presidential judgment or an abuse of the office, and as such merit careful scrutiny by trustees.
However, the complaint running through most no-confidence votes is that the targeted administrator is unwilling to share power. Often, this allegation is a response to a president’s or provost’s efforts to reorganize an academic unit, phase out a department, eliminate a lightly enrolled degree program, or push back against a faculty union. Such actions typically draw hostile criticism from faculty legislative bodies, as in this charge by a Texas A& M faculty senator: “Our president missed that part in kindergarten where they talked about sharing.”
Typically, those at the receiving end of no-confidence votes are described as authoritarian, arrogant, and contemptuous of shared governance. Their alleged aloof, high-handed, disrespectful and undemocratic behavior is seen as an ingrained “management style” that harms the institution by marginalizing its faculty. From the sheer number of such complaints, it seems that American universities and colleges must surely be headed by ruthless and uncaring despots.
And yet outside the campus gates one hears a very different voice. Colleges, say legislators and taxpayers, are too often headed by weak-kneed, buck-passing marshmallows who cannot rein in campus spending, curtail tuition increases, and respond to changing circumstances.
So which is it, marshmallow or despot? One way to resolve the paradox is to consider what faculty no-confidence votes do not allege. Here is a no-confidence petition I guarantee trustees will never see:
Be it resolved: We the undersigned members of the Faculty Senate no longer have confidence in the president’s ability to lead the university. Specifically, we find that the president:
- has not acted forcefully against incompetent teachers and scholars.
- has not merged or eliminated weak academic programs and departments.
- has failed to raise promotion and tenure standards.
- has appointed too many large committees and commissions.
- has not increased efficiency, sped up decision-making, and lowered costs.
The innate resistance to change is the Achilles heel of shared governance, and during hard times this weakness can morph into a ruinous paralysis. Shared governance ensures that many voices are heard but does not ensure closure, and to those whose ox stands to be gored, there is never enough consultation, never enough dialogue, never enough exploring of options.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe in shared governance, and in most respects – particularly at the department level – it generally works well. The University of Michigan Faculty Handbook sums up the strengths:
Faculty participation in governance promotes and encourages diversity of ideas, a sense of shared responsibility, collaboration, collegiality and institutional excellence, and is essential to the well-being of the university.
But there is another side to the coin, mostly talked about behind closed doors in administrators’ offices (and which appears in no faculty handbook):
Faculty participation in governance promotes the rule of mediocrity, perpetuates the status quo, and leads to a wasteful use of time and resources that is detrimental to the well-being of the university.
Thus, like any form of government, shared governance has its pluses and minuses. As is often said about democracy, it may be superior only in comparison to the alternatives. But to the extent shared governance has become a sacred cow, immune from criticism, and a weapon wielded by those who oppose change, it can do great harm to an institution.
America’s colleges and universities are under unprecedented stress, with no easy solutions in sight. To survive this century’s harsh realities, they must find a balance point between administrative efficiency and the protection of core academic values. Doing so will require honest and open conversations about a governance mode that is increasingly dysfunctional.