At my college reunion in May, I caught up with a classmate who had just been appointed chancellor of the largest urban public university system in the country. As we stood under a big tent drinking top-shelf liquor (it costs nearly as much to attend these reunions as it did to go to college there), I told him that I wanted – no, I expected – one thing from him.
He took a sip and asked what it was. Moral leadership. He gulped and joked, “Can I at least wait until my boys are out of college?” Nope, I said. Then I told him what he already knew. Being head of an academic institution means you must muster the intellectual agility, the charismatic presence and the bravery to set agendas not just for one place but for the landscape of higher education.
It’s a bully pulpit. I reminded him of the man who had welcomed us to campus four decades before, an Italian-American Renaissance scholar who chain-smoked cigarettes and whose convocation addresses were works of writerly art. He inspired us not just to study but to want to be better people.
A. Bartlett Giamatti was a rarity then, perhaps the last of his kind. I’ve known a number of university presidents, most of them smart and savvy, but it’s a different time. According to a 2017 survey, the average tenure for a college president is 6 1/2 years, down from 8 1/2 years a decade before.
Presidents get taken out by scandals of their own making, by allowing untoward, unethical and illegal behavior on their watch (often in athletics departments) and by not responding well to crises on their campuses. It’s a difficult job that has only become more difficult.
Each week I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about great public universities circling the drain. The University of Montana, from which I received a graduate degree, has seen enrollment shrink by 40% in the past eight years. The entire University of Alaska system was in danger of being dismantled this summer.
Even good private colleges are not immune from enrollment drops leading to closures. We’re all facing a perceived lack of value in a degree and a shrinking population of college-age students. Things are bad, and they’re going to get worse.
During my 13 years at Eastern Washington University, we’ve had three presidents. The first increased our population of Latinx students, important given the demographics of our region. The person who served next, as interim, had, as provost, lobbied hard for faculty raises so that we were brought up to almost the level of those at our peer institutions.
What we need now are forceful voices to remind those within and outside Eastern that a university stands for moral leadership – for the pursuit of truth and the appreciation of beauty. Faculty need support to teach skills and habits of minds that will allow our students to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
This means no longer instructing as if our students all have trust funds. We need to make sure that they learn to express their ideas clearly and powerfully so they can successfully navigate a changing world.
While I suspect our current president understands and supports these values, she’s also pragmatic. This fall she announced a $25 million renovation to the football stadium that will, she says, “Elevate the whole campus year-round” and “help Eastern recruit more high-caliber student-athletes and make that game-day experience even more memorable.”
A steady stream of “Go, Eags!” risks sending the wrong message about university priorities. A spiffy stadium may be great for those who care about that “game-day experience,” but it’s not the majority of our students or alumni, and it’s not going to get us out of the soup.
Our administration, faculty, students, parents, alumni and legislators must realize that the Eastern they know and love will soon cease to exist. If you pay attention to the national landscape of higher education, you will understand that the sky is in fact falling.
Far from being immune because we have an updated stadium, we, like every other public university and many privates, are facing enrollment shortages and budget crises. Many of our students work. They have elderly parents and young children to care for, and most are strapped for time and money.
They need flexibility in their learning environment and want connections with industry. Football games are pretty far down their list of priorities. Are we here to serve our students or the small portion of our alumni who don’t have better ways to spend a handful of weekends a year?
At a time when most of our teaching faculty are contingent labor, when our six-year graduation rate hovers around 50% and students are leaving without degrees and with boatloads of debt, when we’re operating at a loss and we’ve already laid off many staff members, when faculty are being offered buyouts to retire (and not being replaced), when we will soon be cutting entire programs of study, when we still have to convince legislators that what we do is valuable and worth funding, we need to make strong moral arguments that have to do with education and not just shake pompoms.
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