Document Type

Article

Publication Date

10-2014

Abstract

Message from President: A prominent leader on a rather large Louisiana university recently opened his monthly letter to the campus community with an announcement, in bold-face type, that all may rejoice in the discovery that incoming students had averaged 25.82 on the ACT entrance examination. That, with two-digit decimal accuracy, while the retirement system sweeps away two-digit full-integer percentages of faculty retirement money and while more than two layers of paint peel away in almost every decaying academic building. Setting aside the obvious problems with the physical and economic conditions under which academic professionals toil, one can only wonder what this outburst of administrative enthusiasm over so excruciatingly refined a statistic might signify. What mentality manifests itself in elation over not only an ACT average score, but in devilish details that resolve far beyond plausible margins of error? The most generous explanation for this granulated elation is the desperate hope of finding some—any—news that is not only good, but bullet-proof. Louisiana higher education executives are clever enough to recognize that faculty discontent is so severe that even small emotional cough drops can sweeten the day and soothe the soul. Campus leaders also know that a solid number (or, as they prefer, “metric”) with digits reaching into the decimal places is hard to dislodge from memory and harder still for amateurs such as rank-and-file professors to refute. Yet, in the end, and even giving credit for good intentions, intelligent readers are left wondering whether an incremental ACT statistic is the best that the ever-diffuse “they” can do and whether this information and $3.95 would cover the cost of a cappuccino. What we see in this anesthetic opener is the tragedy of contemporary higher education administration: the diversion of the remarkable talents of persons who not only excel in academic disciplines but who also have, at some time or other, demonstrated leadership skills and management capacities. A combination of political pressures, inadequate backing from management boards, and alienation in the mass clientele of public higher education has re—trained the highly educable persons who comprise the administrative upper echelon in the art of triviality: in the grasping after and obsessing over that which is least offensive, least dangerous, and, sadly, least inventive. And misleading: The smart money would gladly wager that a person with an ACT score of 25.81 might well make some contribution to reaching Mars, curing diseases, or improving the performance of Rachmaninoff. Higher education has always been a matter of added, not subtracted value. Higher education takes a person who presumably could forage his or her way through life and adds to that basic human skill set and basic human value a combination of aspirations and the means to fulfil them. What we are seeing in politically cramped higher education administrations is the reverse of this process as top-level administrators carefully pare away from their presentations anything with even the slight potential to elicit controversy. In the long term, the cost of caution is extremely high. Students who seek decimal resolution rather than abundant added value will eventually regard not only the epiphenomenal arts—disciplines such as philosophy or music history that add to the quality of life but have minimal commercial value—but the university itself as too big, grand, an expensive a project. What university leaders often forget is that the raw competence required for workforce development and the profit arising from industry are themselves valuable owing to larger drives and imperatives such as curiosity, cultural curatorship, and the art of good citizenry. Few would be interested in the great big beautiful tomorrow of Disney legend or even in the latest tweet on the smart phone were it not for the residue of at least semi-great expectations—of goals greater than moving the needle on an entrance test that, after all, is itself only a vendor’s product that has been highly enhanced by the imagined value of a college education.

Share

COinS