Document Type

Article

Publication Date

10-2013

Abstract

Message from President: A new shibboleth among the higher education leadership caste is that the good old days of ample state funding and generous budgets are “never coming back.” Few leaders of American public higher education systems or institutions challenge this seemingly intuitive axiom; none dare risk the loss of legislative or occasionally gubernatorial pity by expressing even a shred of optimism. The embrace of this apparent axiom—the incantation of the gloom-and-doom mantra as a peculiar status symbol indicating sophistication and membership in the highly briefed if not all-knowing leadership in-group—demonstrates the increasing naiveté among the professionalized leadership clique that has emerged from an ever-enlarging selection of assembly-line administration programs rather than from arts-andsciences disciplines. Few of those who have read history of any kind, whether of science, of diplomacy, or even sports, would intone “never” with such confidence. The reifying of “never”—the treatment of the lack of public support as if it were a fact about the universe itself—conveniently conceals a more obvious fact. That fact: Leaders of higher education campuses and systems have not accomplished their assignment, which is to convince the public to support public education. Top-level administrators often complain that they cannot do what the public will not allow, but this excuse conflicts with the claim, so often heard during executive searches, that only over-bred specialists can do such challenging deeds as save a college or university from public apathy. Higher education executives are fond of invoking a somewhat undefined “ business model,” yet business routinely expects its fixers, whether Lee Iacocca or James Dimon, to earn their substantial salaries by demonstrating the exceptional rescue skills that they advertise. One reason for this failure is a strange, indeed crazy aversion to the product that these academic businesspeople aspire to vend. Louisiana’s vanguard institution, LSU (is it A&M or “oneLSU” this week?), is almost bereft of academic input or even presence at any level above that of Dean. The Deans, who retain at least emotional links with their disciplines, have been shorn of most of their authority, status, and influence through a series of centralization efforts of which the LSU consolidation is the latest, best-disguised version. No business would turn away from its products or from the expertise that produces them in the way that centralized administrations have scurried away from anyone with ideas. Imagining the outcome of a decision at Boeing to exclude aeronautical engineers from all decision-making processes yields an easy analogy for what is happening in Louisiana higher education. What is most startling about this process is that, collectively, the upper administrations in systems and on campuses have no idea why they behave the way that they do. It is easy enough for an academic person to recognize that the aversion to competence is a form of gentrification, even dandyism. One theorist of the genteel life, Balthasar Castiglione, warned that gentlemen and gentlewomen should not seem too competent at anything lest it seem that they emerge from the trained, gritty working class. In Louisiana, that aspiration to genteel incompetence—to know a dab about everything in the government but not much about anything in particular—is also reinforced from the ground up by a large segment of the population that distrusts or even dislikes education. What the genteel members of higher education upper administration might do to make a start is to “call the question.” To date, the dainty folks who run the universities have attempted to coddle and placate the government. That drawing-room approach has not worked. Step one would involve not only taking controversial questions but outright asking, in public forums, whether the people of our state want higher education in the form of comprehensive universities. If the answer to that question is “no,” then at least our schools can be drawn down in a way that allows those who are still on-staff to conduct their teaching and research under with adequate support and whatever students remain. If we knew that the population no longer wants to study literature, we could stop hiring in those departments, redirect assets to support those who remain, and see what happens with the accrediting agencies. The answer to this question—does the state want higher education?—will, however, not be “no,” but “yes.” It is only the lack of resolve among overly tender leaders and their fear of input from academic professionals that has prevented the delivery of this conclusive query.

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