Things Need to Be What They Are

Please go read Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The University Run Amok!

Daniel and Wellmon get it.  In spades and stinging sunshine.  As Stanley Fish and others (including your humble blogger) have argued, the humanities need to stop “marketing” themselves as something they aren’t and can’t deliver, and start focusing on simply being what they are.  Without apology.  Daniel and Wellmon make a compelling argument that universities should do the same:

The conflicting interests of the public, the systemic and long-term disinvestment in public institutions more broadly, the amalgamation of public and private interests — all of these make any return to an unalloyed commitment to an idealized “public” difficult and ill-advised.  The university’s democratic commitments have become too centrifugal, pulling apart its interests, energies, and purposes.  To save itself and to better serve its democratic purpose, the university needs to be not more but less reactive to public demands.

Yes!  Yes! And yes!  Universities need to stop trying to be all things to all people and start privileging their traditional function as centers of learning and research again.  Drop the lounging pools
(University of Texas at Austin) and the climbing walls (University of Houston) and having the largest Jacuzzi on the West Coast (Washington State University).

Stop trying to attract more “customers” with expensive toys that have nothing to do with education.  If the only way you can stay in “business” as an educational institution is by waving around expensive, budget-eating gewgaws then you’ve already lost the game.

If such tricks actually worked to generate enough money to save humanities departments, then Washington State University wouldn’t have killed its theater department and then entirely eliminated its performing arts program as it “spent its way to football relevancy” to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.  The quote headlines Brent Schrotenboer’s article in USA Today.

Schrotenboer begins by describing WSU’s newly ramped-up investment in football:

This is what a serious investment project looks like in major college football – a five-story, $61 million building that has a cafeteria staffed with two full-time chefs, a mini-barbershop in the locker room and a top level full of coaches’ offices overlooking the stadium below.

There’s more.  “In fiscal year 2016, WSU athletics got about $800,000 in help from student fees and $3.7 million direct support from the school’s general fund, according to NCAA financial forms.”   But now . . . after all this investment, the athletic department, which has posted operating deficits for six years, owes $51.5 million in debt to the university.  Schrotenboer reports that:

The debt has stretched the Cougars to capacity, meaning they can’t borrow more without coming up with new revenue sources. . . . And they are already looking for ways to pay for more facility upgrades to keep up with the competition and attract top talent, including an indoor practice facility for the football team and other sports projected to cost $28 million.

By the way, Coach Mike Leach’s salary was about $3 million in 2016, almost as much the $3.7 million support from the general fund.

But, hey, a truly expensive budget-busting program, like Performing Arts, which chewed up “more than $1.6 million in funding from University reserves” over 7 years (!) “is simply not sustainable given other pressing budget challenges.”  At least, this is what President Kirk Schulz wrote in a letter addressed to the campus community last fall, a letter that sententiously proclaims across the top:   “Balancing the budget requires compromise, sacrifice”.

Of course it does.  Unless it’s the sports budget, in which case running operating deficits for six years, going into $51.5 million debt with no way to borrow more, and asking for an additional $28 million “to keep up with the competition” requires  . . . what?   Balls?  But this additional investment will trickle through to other programs because Leach says “It doesn’t just help us.  It helps other sports.”

There’s a handy summary of this situation here.

Note, this decision has nothing to do with whether performing arts majors are on track for good paying jobs, unless you somehow believe that student athletes are on track for good paying jobs.  They’re not.  They’re not even on track to getting an education, because excelling at football to generate money so more athletes can get exploited to generate more money consumes all their time.

Daniel and Wellmon sketch three major traditions that inform the American university. There’s the 19th century ideal of the “pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.”  There’s the ideal that originated in Germany of  “the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.”

These visions obviously augment each other.

And then there’s William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago, who proclaimed that the university was “of the people, and for the people, whether considered individually or collectively.”  The university was “the agency established by heaven itself to proclaim the principles of democracy.”  More to the point, Woodrow Wilson, whom Daniel and Wellmon also quote, said a few years earlier, “it is not learning but the spirit of service that will give a college place in the public annals of the nation.” (emphasis mine)

Huh?  One of these things is not like the other.  Harper was a fool.  So was Wilson, on this issue.  The university is not a democratically elected government.  It stands for itself and its own business.  Learning is the university’s spirit of service, performed through research and education.  When learning is considered separate and secondary to public service, the university qua university ceases to exist.

But Wilson’s “spirit of service” nonsense has now turned elitist.  Public universities and smaller colleges are choosing to demonstrate that “spirit of service” by tossing out humanities programs in favor of majors with “clear career pathways” to corporate jobs, while private universities that cater to wealthy elites manage to keep their humanities programs.  Which of those groups of colleges are more likely candidates for the “public annals of the nation”?   Or does the “spirit of service” and Harper’s “principles of democracy” now mean preparing the 99% to serve the 1%?  When universities participate in offloading the 1%’s job-training costs onto the 99%’s student loans, it’s certainly a service to somebody.

Serve the public.  Serve humanity.  Stop destroying opportunities to learn about ourselves.

Universities serve the public by offering education and research.  If that means attracting fewer “customers” it also means not spending money to entice people who are more interested in jumbo Jacuzzis and football rankings than education.

I know how Quixotic this all sounds – how annoyingly Romantic and impractical and unfit for the “real world” and everything else.   But in the real world, things need to be what they are.  That would solve a lot of problems.  Universities are not businesses, they are temples of higher learning and research.

Art, music, history, language – all of these things should matter primarily for their own sake, for what insights they give us into the human condition.  That, and that alone, is how they serve the world.

But everybody wants to be Amazon, so here we are.  And Amazon, apparently, would like to be its own university.

Daniel and Wellmon write that “American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”

Universities really need to stop understanding themselves.  First of all, nobody understands themselves.   People just grab onto useful or flattering models to get themselves through the day, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can say with a straight face that they “understand” themselves.  Institutions even more so.  Institutions set goals, adopt marketing plans, try to attract customers.  And whatever form suits those goals that week is what they play at being.  “Understanding” themselves is always a species of marketing.   Set yourself up as multi-billion dollar business and I guarantee you will suddenly “understand” yourself as a multi-billion dollar business.  Set yourself up as an institution with a sacred mandate to pass down knowledge to the next generation and you will return to “understanding yourself” as something much better.

In a brave new world where everybody has to be everything, nobody gets to be anything.

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