Thursday, August 22, 2013

There is no business like the higher education business!

The mornings are not as bright and sunny as they were a month ago.   The long days of summer are clearly in the past.  Yes, we will have a month more of summer, but, hey, even the blackberries are all gone! 

Thus, in sync with the seasons, my mind has started thinking about the academic issues.  I know it will be another year of tilting at the academic windmills that seem to be getting only getting bigger and more powerful with every passing day.

I will continue to be shocked at how the system works not to benefit the students nor the taxpayers, but itself.  Voiceless and useless that I am on campus, I will probably blog a bit here and write an occasional op-ed on issues, which will all be ignored anyway.

The repeat of the same set of issues will make it seem like some twisted version of an academic Groundhog Day! Might as well regale you with some of those old stories for now ;)

A few years ago, a new provost joined the university where I work.  As much as I was unimpressed with the man upstairs, I met with him a few months after to talk to him about the university's Honors Program for which I was the director.

I had the typical data one would have needed for such a meeting: number of students, average SAT scores and high school GPAs, basic demographics of the students, and the like.  I briefed the provost about these and highlighted a few areas where the university might invest in Honors.

"How many Honors students do study abroad?" he asked.

"Not many. Study abroad is very rare here because it is expensive and most of our students cannot afford to."

"How about graduate school?  How many go on to professional schools?"

"Again, not many. Perhaps an MAT for those going into teaching."

"I need to see that kind of outcomes before we can spend more money in Honors" the provost flatly stated.

The rest of the meeting, I made sure I didn't show how pissed off I was and I exited.

His yardstick of study abroad and graduate school is not the metric for the university whose mission is very different from a Harvard.  Many of our students are first in their families to attend college and earn a degree.  Most have not traveled more than a few hundred miles from their hometowns because they can't afford to.

Yet, that was the provost's yardstick.

As depressing this conversation was, it was even more disappointing when I debriefed about this with a couple of faculty colleagues.  They thought that we ought to encourage students to think more about study abroad and graduate school.  It was quite a "et tu" moment for me.

Of course, those were still the days when most of the faculty had not gotten over their fascination for the new provost.  I was in a tiny minority who was not impressed by any means.  Slowly and steadily, these colleagues also started seeing things differently.  But, of course, he was soon off to a presidency :)

Faculty and administrators alike measure the work we do in educating students in very strange ways. Like in terms of the numbers they have sent to doctoral programs, or law and medical schools.  "Oh, I have these letters of recommendation to write" is a fancy complaining way to let others know that their students are applying to graduate schools.

It is bizarre! 

Success is not defined by whether we added value to students' knowledge-base. Universities do not typically showcase their success by profiling alums who lead happy middle-class lives, but the spotlight is only on those who went on to medical school, or to politics, or earned a gazillion dollars even though they earned only gentleman Cs in school.

What about the great majority of students who complete their degrees in four, five, or even seven years, work hard, pay taxes, raise families, volunteer their time, and lead productive lives?  Are these then nothing but the metaphorical chopped liver? 

The irony is that pretty much every college, including mine, will boast something along the lines of how their mission is to produce well-rounded individuals who will be productive members of society.  Where in this is a requirement that students have to do study abroad and/or go to graduate school?

To make things worse, faculty compete to offer graduate programs.  It is deemed more prestigious to teach graduate courses and engage with grad students.  As one colleague, who has since retired, uttered out of sheer frustration, "it is all about the faculty who can then talk about the number of graduate theses they have chaired."

I suppose there is no business like the higher education business. What a tragedy, especially when a good chunk of the higher education business is built on criticizing the different kinds of "real" businesses out there in the do-or-die competitive environment!

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