Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2-2013

Abstract

Message from President: Years ago, American Airlines backgrounded its television advertisements with a hauntingly optimistic jingle featuring one phrase, “something special in the air.” Tone, whether musical or inflectional or atmospheric, is indeed something airy— something halfway between the inferred and the empirical. One of the wonders if not miracles of recent educational policy is the sudden change in tone among the campuses of the University of Louisiana System since the arrival of new, imaginative, and energetic leadership in the “UoL” System office. Nothing has changed in the budget picture and therefore not too much has happened empirically. Nevertheless, and suddenly, the Presidents of the University of Louisiana System campuses are fielding new ideas, reaching out to new constituencies, and, in general, going after the gold. This energizing effect has proved happily infectious and has also enlivened the growing community and technical college system. Even ever-beleaguered Southern is, in a phrase, “hangin’ in there,” or least least hanging loose. Meanwhile, dark moods and nervous secrecy keep the mood glum and the glance retrospective over on Lakeshore Drive. What is bringing about the “UoL miracle” is the new willingness to consider ideas and to break free of old slogans about who is the “flagship” or who is the biggest kid on Louisiana’s short block. At the recent “CLCU” (Conference of Louisiana Colleges and Universities) conference—on which a report will appear in the March 31st Newsletter—we heard UNO President Peter Fos talk about urban research universities and we heard private college President Ronald Ambrosetti talk about the revival of liberal arts within pre-vocational programs. Up in Shreveport, at the edge of the LSU System, we have heard medical education activist Philip Rozeman questioning whether big and consolidated is really better than in-touch and on-the-localground. This and the column next month will take a cue from the “UoL Renaissance” by considering some of the clichés and shibboleths that resonate through the current debate over higher education in Louisiana. Few of the keywords and buzz-phrases that have been bruited in this debate have been examined with any degree of resolution or granularity. Let us begin with the number-one misused term, “workforce development.” This short term is, in fact, a tissue of implications and insinuations rather than meanings. The vague word “workforce” would surely cover the plurality of human beings and might even include professors. The insinuation behind the word, however, suggests only a very small slice of the potential workforce: an array of formerly white-collar but increasingly blue-collar, non-management personnel with technical competence but with career trajectories that are shorter and flatter than university propaganda might allow. The term “workforce” converts professionals such as engineers or chemists into day laborers and implicitly transfers the management function, even in industry, to a less competent management caste. The obsession of the LSU System Presidential Search Committee with “non-traditional” (read: managerial but not academically qualified) candidates mimics the aforementioned process of demotion and transfer of authority. Young people who are seduced by the rhetoric of “workforce development” may well find themselves in the position of the aerospace experts of the 1970s, who ended up plying their air- and spacetravel skills by flipping burgers up high. “Development” is a likewise diffuse term. No one curriculum and no one university, no matter how comprehensive, can “develop” a generic, all-purpose “workforce” that meets every need. Workforce needs, moreover, change over time. The hubris of contemporary statisticians leads many would-be experts to feel certain about future labor needs, but that feeling is as much the product of faith as of empirical evidence. The term “development” implies the passage of time, during which needs will change—as is evidenced by the totality of human history—and during which students would be better served by the exploration of skills that will create future prospects rather than by the task-specific cultivation of skill sets suitable for perceived needs. When currently workforce-pertinent skills are no longer current or when the job market drifts in new directions, industrialists will surely blame universities for not keeping up with the times. Open for consideration, too, is the apparent abdication by public universities of their responsibility for that segment of the workforce that brings value to life. Able religious leaders, social reformers, artists, labor union officials, and plain old volunteers are ever in short supply. Universities have gained the prestige they enjoy by their provision of those who serve the public and who enhance, interpret, and improve the strange adventure of human life. As the repeated failure by Louisiana to attract high-revenue, professional-intensive industries demonstrates, the shortfall in the Louisiana culture and non-profit sectors carries a high price tag. There will be another day, another month, another year, and another future in Louisiana. “Workforce development” is an unsustainable and ultimately incoherent mission. And there will be another welcome column next month, in which we will look at the whole workforce of hard-duty slogans, whether “privatization,” “online education,” or “consolidation.”

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