The lowering of higher education

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Colleges and universities have been in the news much of late. The news, however, has been strangely devoid of comment on high education’s essential mission; engaging students in the world of ideas and getting them ready for their life’s journey. Instead, the news reports are about date rape, binge drinking, protests and cancellation of speakers with unpopular ideas and, of course, the dangers of microaggressions and providing students with “safe spaces.”

Not that long ago, getting a “college education” was a serious pursuit. Students who could do the work and hold down a part-time job were rare and much admired. Standards were high and rigorously enforced. Nowadays, one rarely hears about someone getting “kicked out of college” for poor academic performance. Today, dismissing a freshman could mean the school’s loss of $200,000 over the next four years.

Courses were demanding and the common expectation was three to four hours of study for every hour in the classroom. Saturday classes were common. Attendance was expected and “taken.” On many campuses today, the weekend parties begin on Thursday night.

Words stay the same, but frequently their meanings morph dramatically. This is certainly true of “higher education.” What the phrase stands for today is radically different set of experiences than a few decades ago. There are many reasons for the changes, but a primary reason is a failure of leadership by the men and women who sit in the offices of the college president. Once those offices were filled by serious people, by scholars who understood the ideas behind the words “university” and “college.”

One of those was the late John Silber, who led Boston University for nearly three decades. In an interview 10 years ago, Silber was asked how he treated the student protesters who put up shacks on the BU campus. He called in the police and told them to ask the protesters three questions. Do they have title to the property? Did they have building permits? And did they have permission from the historic commission? Once it was clear that they didn’t have adequate answers to those questions, the police were instructed to tell the students they had 15 minutes to take down the shacks. Knowing the students would not, he suggested that the police cart them off.

But, Silber said, “I want you to be very gentle, and I want you to take them to the paddy wagon singing, ‘It’s just a shanty in old shanty town.’ Because one point I want to get across to these students is, I do not take them seriously. This is not some very deeply felt, high moral cause on their part; this is showboating of a very insincere kind by most of these students, and I want them to understand that I see through their pretensions.”

Silber was president during a time of transition. He thought college life was about having one’s mind challenged and stretched by encounters by the best of the world’s ideas. Never a contender for “Mr. Congeniality,” Silber was a guardian of the idea of university and he spent his considerable energy instructing trustees, faculty, staff and students what that meant. In the process, he transformed a mediocre school into a first-rate university.

Silber was one of a handful of presidents that steered their universities through years of campus protest and turmoil. The University of Chicago was blessed with two such presidents, Edward Levi and Hannah Gray. Notre Dame was led by Theodore Hesburgh for 35 years, transforming the school from a parochial football power to a distinguished university. Common to each were two qualities; courage and a focus on the essential missions of teaching and learning.

Today, universities are rarely led by scholars. Often they are led by gray managers — men and women who, after receiving their doctoral degrees, taught briefly and having performed well at “committee work,” fled into “academic administration.” Once there, and freed from the rigors of research and isolated from the university’s customers (aka: students), they climbed the ladder.

Their role and the standard for their success is capital “g” Growth. First and foremost, that means fundraising. In turn, that means more managers and an explosion of the university’s administrative offices. More gray managers from Deans for Minority Affairs to Directors of Athletic Recruitment and Vice Presidents for Planned Giving. As a faculty wag once commented of his Associate Dean, “he’s a mouse studying to be a rat.”

Meanwhile, the business of higher education grows, its value shrinks and its meaning is lost in a sea of gray.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan are writers, former teachers, and the editors of Why I’m Still A Catholic. They write primarily on cultural, educational and religious topics. You can view previous columns by the Ryans here