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.