Back in those golden days of yesteryear, universities had this very quaint and charming notion that their purpose was to fill the minds of young people with knowledge. They provided a brief refuge from the tumult of the everyday world, so students could acquire an intellectual foundation that would enlighten the rest of their lives.
Somebody has really, REALLY messed things up, and I think you know who you are, gentlemen.
My solution is draconian -- even perverse -- but drastic measures are justified. The Male Imperative is corrupting homo sapiens' every institution and endeavor, and it's killing the planet in the process.
HE MAN: I AM THE POWER!
The quiet but profound interchange between students and those who regard teaching as the noblest of endeavors doesn’t seem to interest the He Men who now run institutions of higher learning, in the same way that they run everything else.
What they want is way more grand than that. This Brave New Breed of university leaders is not scholarly -- that’s so Old School! They are technocrats, money men, Power Point people with their business-school jargon and their cold, conceited concept of "success."
OH WAIT, THERE ARE STUDENTS INVOLVED?
They are so busy marching with muscled loins toward grand new horizons of empire building that they tend to forget about that rather boring little distraction -- you know -- the kids in the classrooms. As a result, the students, who pay ever-more-exorbitant fees to go to school, have gone from being the center of the university universe to being way, way out there, like tiny, plaintive asterisks.
BIG THINKERS MAKING BIG MESSES
Time after time over the past 40 years, I have seen so-called “visionary leadership” and “big thinkers” positively ruin institutions and causes of all kinds -- confounding them with influxes of money, pushing grandiose ideas for expansion, “modernization,” and diversification, and diverting them from their core missions.
This dynamic has tarnished the integrity and credibility of some of our most esteemed charities and other nonprofits, government agencies and institutions of higher education, which at one time were truly dedicated to a cause -- not to their own self-aggrandizement. Their leaders are fat cats now -- no more Volkswagen beetles and khakis for these dudes -- and those they once served are basically just props.
These Masters of the Universe love to transform some diminutive, sincere, quietly effective effort into a bloated, big-time tumescence, just for sport. Everything they make bigger enlarges themselves. They want to be LARGE. They are blunt instruments, indeed, in the way they define progress. Build up, build out, build under.....just build, and for god's sake, don't ask why. If we build it, the answer will come.
What emerges from the proddings of these rare specimens of manhood who “Dare to Dream” are massive heaps of ever-growing bureaucracy, through-the-roof increases in budgetary needs and a once-cherished constituency that has lost its relevance. The institution itself -- rather than its purported mission -- becomes the prize, which must be perpetually embellished, so the honchos don't lose their sheen.
These exalted Philosophers of the Future -- who are like vagabond faith healers, playing musical chairs with each other as they leap from one institution to another -- they are meddlers, tinkerers, manically moving the components around into new (but new in any meaningful way?) configurations. I guess they have to look busy to justify the obscene salaries they command, but their thrilling plots and elaborate dreams leave their supposed beneficiaries -- the poor people, the sick people, the oppressed people, the students -- in the dust.
What also emerges as this “progress” occurs is competition. Those institutions and causes that formerly regarded each other as comrades in the world of Good Works are now pitted against each other in the rousing quest to dominate, to beat out the others, to have greater riches and prestige. This big-stakes game is so much more fun for the Dear Leaders than the piddling, humble process of serving a constituency that they become positively addicted. They want to WIN. They want to MAKE IT. They want to STAND OUT. They want to vanquish their foes and plant their flags on THE TOP OF THE HEAP.
THE EVIL ELIXIR THAT RUNS IN THEIR VEINS
I blame it -- as I do so many bad, bad things (only half jokingly) (or three quarters) -- on testosterone. Men ruin everything. Their virulent hormonal imperatives create an insatiable need for BIGNESS and for EVEN BIGGERNESS. It is growth for growth’s sake, this urgency to keep expanding and changing and building up and tearing down so we can build something even bigger and better -- something that is even more cutting-edge and state-of-the-art and world-class. Something that is designed by ever-more-famous architects and gets written up in ever-more-prestigious magazines. They are the Top Dogs, who have the fire in the belly to be BEST OF SHOW.
( According to the New York Times, Dec. 13, 2012: "A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill. Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody's.")
This hormone-propelled, urgent, mindless striving is acquisitive. It is imperialistic. It is enthralled by symbolism and imagery. It transforms decent, modest institutions into ravenous beasts, whose self-importance knows no bounds. It is reckless and disruptive, and it buries, unceremoniously, the sentiments that gave birth to the enterprise it claims to be shepherding to a better future.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the world of higher education, where the Great Man Theory is in full flower. Thus do we woo and pursue them for the magical power of their rare charisma, vision and vitality. Thus do we heap these shameless poseurs with outlandish wealth and amenities, hoping like hell that they are fabulously irresistible fund-raisers and fame-makers, because really, that’s what it’s all about.
When the outgoing chairman of the University of Utah board of trustees, Randy Dryer, described the institution he is departing as a "conglomerate" -- in a June 19 Salt Lake Tribune article -- he unwittingly illustrated how this process has unfolded on what was once a cozy, attractive, cordial campus where teaching and learning meant everything. Students were the center of this Platonic universe. It existed for them.
IMMERSED IN THE THRILLING WORLD OF IDEAS
When my father dropped me off at 7:30 each morning, in the late '60s, I felt as if I had entered Our Town. Not that it was quaint, but that it was a community. It had a pace that seemed appropriate for imbibing Great Ideas, and I was ecstatic at the insights I was gaining into philosophy, economics, history, architecture, literature, science and media.
The fact that things have changed since Randy Dryer and I were friends and campus activists is not surprising, of course.
But the ways in which they have changed seem pretty pathetic to me.
The priorities are dismaying. The finances are obscene. Huge and beautiful buildings are a pleasure, but the U. has put far too many hundreds of millions of dollars into brick and mortar while telling students and the Legislature that it’s broke.
The University of Utah’s “Together we Reach” campaign collected $162 million for building projects between 2005 and last year – and less than half that much for student scholarships.
Governor Herbert’s web site last autumn announced that more than $94 million would be allotted to several building projects at the University of Utah and Utah State University.
Meanwhile, thousands of students are priced out of higher education, and for those who do go, the financial strain is a chronic distraction.
I didn’t mind taking classes in the old Army annex one bit. Old buildings are nice. So is affordable tuition.
HOW DOES A ‘POWERHOUSE’ BENEFIT ACADEME?
I am grateful that I was a university student at a time when there wasn’t -- as there is now -- a billion-dollar construction “boom” going on, with cranes swaying overhead, and earth movers and cement mixers going full blast. I’m glad the university wasn’t chasing a national reputation as “a research and athletic powerhouse” when I was there.
Higher Learning and “powerhouse” don’t seem all that compatible to me.
Dryer is proud that the campus has become “a major economic engine” and “more like a big business” than a university. This is just plain sad.
“It’s harder to understand the university now. It’s not only large, it’s very diversified. There are so many moving parts, akin to a conglomerate with a lot of different product lines,” Dryer said.
UNIVERSITY AS CONGLOMERATE: NOT VERY APPEALING
The University shouldn’t be hard to understand. It should not be akin to a conglomerate. It should not have product lines. It should have teachers, students and learning.
If it’s become more like a big business, why not let it be a big business and create for ourselves an Actual University that does university things and has university values?
Why can’t big business remain in the realm of business and leave teaching and learning alone? Why are these Big Brash Builders so incapable of respecting a human scale? Why are they so hungry, so restless, so determined to accomplish mind-boggling feats of ever-bigger HUGENESS?
SCAT, YOU TERRITORIAL CATS!
Can’t our culture tolerate just a few oases of peace and contemplation? Must the many Michael K. Youngs of the world mark everything as their “territory” -- with their own special scent -- as if they were a bunch of feral cats? Scat, you guys!
The driving force behind a University that is “a $2.5 billion enterprise with an international reach” is egotism. It is not the love of learning, nor is it a concern for the welfare of young people. It’s a great big playground for grownups, whose overriding motives are money, status and career advancement.
WILL SOMEBODY ELSE PLEASE DEAL WITH THOSE KIDS?
How many times have we heard about professors who are too busy to teach? How many students do you know who have actually taken a course taught by a full professor? Those exalted brains are doing their own thing, which is way more rewarding than trying to create a spark of interest in a bunch of eye-rolling kids. Let the TAs and the adjuncts deal with students -- god, what a bore!
But now, as Dryer observes, this dysfunction has been reframed into what is supposed to be a delightful new paradigm:
“Students learn from each other as much as from the teacher, who is more of a facilitator than the fountain of wisdom,” Dryer said.
Author and professor Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia loves to teach, but he hates the conditions under which much teaching takes place today, even at an elite university like his, according to the August 21, 2013 issue of the New York Times. "These conditions — the consumer mentality of students and their families, the efforts of administrators to provide a full spa experience and the rush of faculty to escape from the classroom into esoteric research — make real teachers an endangered species in the academic ecosystem," the article says.
According to Edmundson's book, “Why Teach?,” inspiration is in short supply these days on campus."In the book’s first section, Mr. Edmundson describes the growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge," the Times says.
I couldn't agree more.
DUDE: LAY SOME KNOWLEDGE ON ME
And now, as Dryer says, teachers are superfluous as students instead learn from each other. Oh great! And paying thousands of dollars a year for this fun new way to become educated. Hey man, how about hooking me up with some of your knowledge?
I loved those “fountains of wisdom” whom Dryer seems to derogate. I can still see them and hear them more than 40 years later. I was thrilled to be sitting at their feet, figuratively speaking, and I was inspired by their mastery, insights and their deep affection for their disciplines.
I was fond of my fellow students, but I didn’t go to college to be taught by them, for god’s sake!
SO EXPERIENTIAL AND INTERACTIVE, IT’S NOT EVEN LIKE SCHOOL!
And those old-fashioned “physical classrooms” are “being replaced with experiential, interactive, collaborative learning.” So now that we don’t need all those physical classrooms anymore, what is the “building boom” all about?
“The research enterprise has grown exponentially. That creates a need for support systems and everything to administer the grants and publish the findings,” Dryer said.
When we pay nearly $7,000 to send our kids to the U., how much of that money goes toward actual teacher-student interaction, i.e. education? It would be quite revealing to see a breakdown. There are so many offices and departments up there -- what are all those people doing that is relevant to someone getting a degree?
The number of students has increased by less than 20 percent since I was there. The number of administrative staffers has nearly tripled. The number of square feet has quadrupled. What's up with that? It's like cancer, except that there's no known treatment, and the prognosis is "no end in sight."
SHOW ME THE MONEY
According to the Utah State Board of Regents, all of the state's public colleges and universities combined employ fewer than 7,000 full and part-time faculty. They employ nearly 25,000 ancillary staffers and administrators. The Utah System of Higher Education is the largest employer in Utah, with an annual payroll of $780 million.
The University president and his Cabinet give themselves millions of dollars a year in salaries, benefits, deferred compensation and pension plans. Recently departed University President Michael Young and his 11-member Cabinet received a 37 percent jump in salary over a five-year period, while the faculty got an average 7 percent increase.
BIG PAYCHECKS AND LONG YARDSTICKS
There are a lot of professors and administrators who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as public employees. Big Men want Big Money, and they have this need to see who has the bigger whatever as a way to determine the pecking order, or who is the bull elephant in the pack, etc. It‘s quite poignant to realize how much we are a part of the animal kingdom.
Tuition has been going up by 10 percent a year. What is that money really buying?
It’s buying whatever makes the Generalissimos feel good. Edifices, athletics, big names and provocative new ventures. It’s buying a whole lot of stuff that has nothing to do with you.
SYMBOLIC VICTORIES MAKE THE BIG BOYS SO HAPPY
Dryer cites the university’s first Nobel Prize in 2007 and last summer’s invitation to the premier Pacific Athletic Conference as the greatest achievements in his 17-year tenure on the Board of Trustees.
Isn't that pretty dismaying? How many tens of thousands of students got -- or didn't get -- some beautiful, life-changing, character-building wisdom from their schooling during that time? Where does that fit into Dryer's calculus?
Young was unapologetic in sharing these goals. "Our institutional priority is to produce more Nobel Prize winners," he said. To "put the university on the map," he added, the University must spend more money on its "first-rate team" of highly paid and competitive administrators.
So the top priority is to produce more and MORE Nobel Prize winners. Why? How can that be the TOP PRIORITY??? Because it is such a pride thing, such an influx of yumminess for the egos of the Park Building aristocrats -- that "first-rate team" to which Young referred. Another feather in the cap. Oh feathers, how we love thee! And also, notches in our belts!
(At the Pac-12 announcement on the State Capitol steps July 1, Senator Orrin Hatch bragged, rather irrelevantly, "I love the fact that we've stolen a dozen top scientists from Harvard." More trophies. More feathers! And now we're resorting to theft to get them. And proud of it!)
The ironic thing is that what lurks behind the boundless vanity of university presidents and their "first-rate teams" is a pathological self-esteem problem. They've got to be able to drag out these Nobel guys and the top-tier sports logos to prove to the world that they are Hot Stuff. They've simply got to have trophies. There can never be enough!
And thanks to this little character flaw of theirs, this need for status symbols and flash, our young people are short-changed incalculably.
AREN’T WE ON THE MAP YET, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?
After all these years of trying to “put the university on the map,” why don’t they try having some goal that has more to do with academic excellence instead of self-importance? If we aren’t on the map after so much effort and expense, maybe “the map” isn’t where we belong.
The runaway vanity and lust for symbolic greatness create a burden that is borne by all of us. And what relevance do Nobel prizes and football have to the quality of education the school’s students receive? Who cares -- it makes the Powers that Be feel important.
Nobel Laureate Mario Cappechi is like the U.‘s Sistine Chapel or Eiffel Tower. He’s a thing we point to, and say “look how grand and beautiful we are.”
Our university leaders are desperate to bask in the reflected glow of whatever or whomever they can find. It makes them bigger. It makes their swagger swaggier. It makes them lust for more, because piling it on is one of the things they do.
The Pac-12 thing is just pathetic -- yet another way to inflate egos and get those endorphins racing around without doing ANYTHING to contribute to the education of our children. They keep saying athletics make money, but our kids are forced to pay into the athletics system every semester, and the coach makes $1.2 million a year.
But Michael K. Young was proud to call himself "the greatest football president the University has ever had." Well good for you. Maybe you'll be the greatest concussion president as well.
In the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utes' defensive coordinator, Kalani Sitake, declares, rather poignantly: "We want to prove some people wrong. We want to show some people up. We want to prove that we belong."
That's a nice, concise summary of the university's messed-up psyche, and of men's psyches in general. And it seems that they never, ever succeed in proving that they belong.
Here's a little reminder: "Belonging" isn't supposed to be the goal of a university or a corporate enterprise.
But our Big Boosters have an insatiable appetite for affirmation, status and glory. These are their RED MEAT, and they are massively carnivorous, because that is the manly way to be.
IT’S ABOUT TIME SOMEBODY ‘BRANDED’ US
Now the University “has hired a new brander-in-chief " (for a quarter-million dollars a year) who cites the U.’s admission to the Pac-12 as a major step in advancing the “brand.”
“That’s a recognition of the fact that the university has been piling up some impressive wins,” says William Warren, the U.'s new chief marketing and communications officer, who has helped with the “branding“ of Coca-Cola.
(Maybe he could recycle Coke’s latest slogan, “Life Begins Here,” for the University. It has just the right flavor and zest, doesn’t it?)
It is this testosteronal urgency to conquer the world that has us “branding” education and “piling up wins.” And it is that same urgency that has corrupted our politics and economic system.
RUTTING SEASON: A NEVER-ENDING STORY OF HOWLING LUST
We have too many bucks for whom rutting season seems to be a 12-month-per-year phenomenon. Something must be done to get these guys to chill out (and escape from that rut!).
I have a suggestion that might help. I believe we need to apply an estrogen patch to the fanny of any man who has a senior leadership position in any organization of any kind. Each morning these guys should be required to line up, facing away from us of course, and drop trou, so we can be sure it’s still stuck on there properly.
Maybe the world would be a better place.