Observations of a retired college president …
I am sure you’ve heard colleagues when they return from sabbatical surprised by how much their institutions changed while they were on leave. The apparent change is even more profound for someone who left the arena seven years ago, as I did.
Here are five issues that, in the past few years, have caught my attention either by reading about them in the media or by observing them during my visits to campuses:
First, cost of a college education, in particular the steep rise in private institutions. Here, I must admit that I have grown more frustrated with the accumulation of costs that have little to do with the central mission of the colleges or universities. The largest departments on campus are not the academic units, but rather athletics, IT, dean of student offices, counseling and medical centers, admissions and development and the physical plant staff. In the meantime, over the past several decades, the faculty-teaching load has been reduced—in order to give more time to research.
We must try a continuing review of what I would call “centrality exercises” on our campuses. What is really the core responsibility and hence the core task? To me the quality of the exchange between faculty and students has always been first.
The vast majority of individuals on college payrolls are not the people who serve the core mission of teaching and research, but the people who support all of the other tasks.
I have very little unsolicited advice here except that you must: Stay With the Mission!
The second topic I have reflected on in retirement has been the preparedness of the incoming student. This is of course not a new complaint, but I’d like to make a personal observation on this issue that has bothered me since I arrived in the U.S. in the early sixties.
In a number of our high schools, it is still possible to achieve a score of 110 on 100 in examinations and testing! Only in America can students be judged and rewarded for being more that perfect! This practice is fraught with serious consequences. First-year college students (and their parents) have a hard time accepting that college professors find their writing skills below par and their math preparation inadequate for their chemistry courses. (The same is true, by the way, in athletics where most high school graduates accumulate ribbons and prizes in soccer and other sports only to find out that these really do not truly reflect their abilities.)
The sad part is when this un- or underpreparedness leads to frustration, disappointment and failure. As a result, we see graduation records in too many colleges that are painfully low … at a great cost to the parents and government.
We also see so much encouragement for students to do part-time work, starting in high school and well through college. In many instances, it is needed and I have great admiration for this effort. But I am afraid that it has created in society an image that study is a part-time job. I think it began with the incredibly successful G.I. Bill, which proved that part-time study could work. It should be obvious that it is very hard, nay impossible, to present the countercultural argument to the incoming first-year students that study will demand 100% of their time and energy!
So here again some more unsolicited advice: Stay With the Standard for Admission! And then be prepared to help the students successfully complete their studies.
My third point to address is political correctness. That phenomenon has plagued our society for a few decades, but lately it appears to have morphed into an even worse form. I am baffled by the rise of student-driven (at times parent-driven) demands to protect students from words, ideas and subject matters that make them feel uncomfortable.
Where is the time when a liberal education called for the stretching of the mind, for pulling students out of their comfort zone?
Much is written about this but I find it insufficiently alarming. We had to deal in the past with well-intentioned helicopter parents and their sometimes-exaggerated demands. But this call for protection from ideas is much more serious and is a direct assault on higher education.
When one reads in the Chronicle and other publications about some examples of student initiatives that have found an approving response from college administrations, one cannot help but to think we have found a new version of the theatre of the absurd.
As president, one has the occasional doubt about the value of tenure but, in the past 25 years, I believe tenure has been needed to truly protect the faculty’s pursuits from government or society’s interference. Now, I am afraid we will need tenure to protect the academicians from their students!
This issue is more important than cost or preparedness. Universities must do more than discourage “trigger warnings” they must fight this latest form of anti-intellectualism. It is a calamity that will damage higher education.
The fourth item I want to address briefly is the narrowing of the goals of higher education with a very strong focus and emphasis on job preparedness.
We have always argued that we prepare students for a fulfilling life, not merely jobs. While a wonderful program like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is of great interest, it should not lead to forgetting all the other disciplines that broaden our culture, not just our economy.
The attempts “to align our curricula to the marketplace” could lead to some unintended and dangerous consequences. It is hard to refuse those who feed you.
An emphasis on STEM is fine, but let us not strive to become a society without poets and painters, philosophers and historians, journalists and independent thinkers, teachers and dreamers. Let us change the E in STEM, at times, to E for English, or perhaps add an A for Arts or STEAM.
As a minimum, let us be careful and critical of “the monitoring of the earnings” of our graduates. I do not believe that our Peace Corps volunteers and others belong at the bottom of the list!
Let us encourage the entrepreneur, but let us not discourage the budding young poet. We do not only have a responsibility to protect and grow the economy, but we also have an equal obligation to enrich our culture and our society.
My fifth and last observation: The need for change in all colleges and universities.
Enrollment predictions, funding opportunities, technology, the marketplace, etc. drive change. Now, somewhat in retrospect, I think we made a big mistake in not having successfully invited or persuaded the faculty over the past few decades to be the change agents on campus.
Colleges and universities outdo one another in lofty mission statements, but none include the fact that they are agencies of employment, and because they are agencies of employment, faculty and staff always feel threatened by the impending changes or even the mere consideration of it.
Another problem related to the reluctance to change on the part of faculty is their longevity. If faculty had retired at age 65 over the past two decades, there would have been more room to bring the next generation (technologically savvy) on board and that would have accelerated substantially the much-needed diversification. It would have been a natural evolution to see the aging male faculty be succeeded by women and minority colleagues.
I must admit that I am more pessimistic about higher education than at the time I was in its embrace. Then, my optimism was fed by the challenges of the contact with students—their energy and potential. I was always energized while interviewing candidates for faculty positions—their idealism, their promise and the fact that they were so much smarter than I was. Now, at a distance, I miss these contacts, which were the daily inspiration to do better.
Finally and as a conclusion: Why NEBHE?
NEBHE is needed more today than 60 years ago when visionary governors could come to a consensus to create this specific vehicle to advance higher education interests. The NEBHE membership would serve itself well to contemplate the vision and courage of those governors and see if the same courage and an updated vision can be pursued with the same courage and confidence.
Consensus-building should not be considered a passé endeavor. There remains a need to avoid duplication and, since today we seem to be so aware of the “marketplace,” it should be easier.
There is the continued need for collaboration among institutions and, since today we are prepared to work with the labor market forces, that should be easier as well!
Here I need to make a public and ardent plea for a more systematic inclusion of the private colleges and universities. There is a wealth of brainpower and ideas that can be shared to the advantage of all. Private institutions face many similar problems and deliver large numbers of graduates to our society. I do not believe there are any risks in such a rapprochement.
NEBHE must encourage and assist the joint pursuit of solutions. NEBHE must be a loud voice in protection of academic freedom and be prepared to speak with a bold voice on all issues where individual campuses find it difficult to address problems and believe they have to be cautious. NEBHE must be the avant garde in these efforts.
Marc A. vanderHeyden is president emeritus of Saint Michael’s College.