Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1-2014

Abstract

Message from President: Throughout Louisiana and across several generations of administrators, it can easily be observed that an uptick in enthusiasm for student events and interactions inevitably precedes the end of a regime. When a president or chancellor begins appearing in student forums or develops a taste for dormitory chats, seasoned observers know that the end is near. Why? The correlation of concern for the budding youth with the end of the reigning generation points up what might be called the sometimes genial, sometimes tedious “childishness” of Louisiana higher education. Rather than calling for the political equivalent of extreme unction, declining administrators cling to whatever provides the most traction with their constituencies. Sympathy and last-gasp support seldom arises from the declaration of new discoveries in the Bach canon, but chatting with youngsters about student loans or about career opportunities is certain to shore up public support. Very few doubt that the education of promising youth should absorb a good share of the collective university effort. Conventionally and euphonically if not actually, teaching has always appeared first in the trio of “teaching, service, and research” that comprises the fundamental promotion and tenure requirement. After decades under the influence of this three-part formula, we have now arrived at a curious and unstable condition in which, de facto, research determines the course of careers (and also makes up a good part of university funding); service, at least at the level of consulting and government advising, is sexy and lucrative; while teaching—attending to the needs of educable youth—takes center stage in the slightly propagandistic presentation of universities to the public. On the one hand, faculty believe that their main job is to win grants or to heighten their profiles or to make connections while, on the other hand, the public hears that avant-garde writers, artists, and researchers want nothing more than to promote student retention. University leaders hesitate to proclaim the correlation between the racheting up of public rhetoric about such student-centered operations as workforce development or promotion of high-impact retention activities with the overall decline of American research, innovation, and leadership. The new discourse of student retention—the relentless affirmation that a university will do almost anything to show concern for and to retain students—has subtly shifted emphasis from the promotion of excellence to the advancement of comfort. Emblems of and metaphors for this subtle childishness can be found most everywhere in Louisiana higher education, whether in recruitment and retention programs or whether in what LSU System President King Alexander correctly identifies as a return to the age of universities that act in loco parentis or whether in the condoning of activities such as cheerleading and beauty pageants that bypass critical thinking in order to showcase “cute kids” or whether in buildings designed and decorated to look like parents’ snug homes rather than modern architectural compositions or whether in the powerful presence of quasi-parental entities such as fraternities and sororities or whether in the less than urgent topics that occupy many Louisiana student government associations. What we need from higher education leaders is a re-examination and reassertion of the multiplicity of purposes in universities. It would not hurt to remind the public that the great value of a higher education institution is its transcendence of the human lifespan: its ability not only to move people past the formative childhood years but also to maintain the long-term quest for knowledge. Of course, idealistic phrases such as “the quest for knowledge” have gone out of fashion, but, then, they are somewhat better than phrases such as “high-impact retention activities” and somewhat more durable than the career of the latest teen idol. Childishness, after all, is all about the now: what we think we want now, what we are doing now, who is helping or hurting us now. Durability and durable goals might not be bad alternatives.

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