Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2-22-2017

Abstract

Message from President: Readers of the now old-fashioned novels of Dorothy Sayers and Evelyn Waugh remember an era of academic elegance: a time when colleges and universities reveled in custom, costume, character, and social complexity. True, the jottings of the aforementioned writers caricatured an academic establishment that hovered on the thin line between comedy (per academic satire) and criminality (per detective novels), yet they also portrayed a cultural elite that occasionally fell into absurdity or even lawlessness owing to its willingness to stand apart from the norm. Rank-and-file citizens might puzzle over the singing of the Mallard Song at All Souls College, but no one in early twentiethcentury Oxford felt the need to deploy a media relations expert to explain why this genially deviant behavior served the needs of the average man or woman on the street. It is easy enough to look around Louisiana campuses and see nothing at all in the way of elegance. Buildings have fallen into dereliction, chefs flee the junk food counters in student unions, university web sites pander to the casual and the comfort cultures, and not only students, but often professors, fall short of professional dress standards. The immediately visible signs of the decline of elegance, however, tell only part of a story about the withdrawal of universities from not only cultural leadership but also from cultural entitlement. Our shabby institutions no longer image a collective sense, among university members, that universities challenge, change, criticize, and overleap norms. The fear of displaying superiority—anxiety about the convincing presentation of universities and their denizens as the point of the spear in the war against ignorance and Philistinism—registers a lack of clarity about what universities ought to do and a reluctance in university leadership concerning the mission of higher education. Superficially, systems, institutions, and their leaders have plenty of answers when it comes to the purpose of the collegiate enterprise. A campus or system president challenged by the press can always make recourse to the enormous economic impact of even the smallest campus or the centrality of an educated workforce to Louisiana’s future of the spin-off technologies from advanced research or the miraculous saves accomplished by doctors at medical campuses. Common to all these claims is the recourse to utility: to overtly economical, physical, or occasionally tasks. Absent from these explanations is any reference to the quest for knowledge or to art for art’s sake or to the pleasure that arises from living in a culture where the graduates of an architecture program have designed inspiring buildings. None of those defenses of the university, whether the “mad scientist” plea to probe the mind of god or the aesthete’s appeal to cultivate beauty, are as eccentric as might seem. At one time or another in educational history, they have all been used by higher education administrations. The shoving to the side of these justifications for the university is the shoving to the side of aspirations. No wonder that Louisiana’s campuses have a hard time building morale or even figuring out what their faculty ought to be doing. Which brings us back to the elegance issue. Consider two phenomena: billboards and receptions. Anyone driving Louisiana’s highways sees billboard after billboard from campus after campus, all screaming that this or that campus will provide tuition-paying students with the lifestyle they desire (Northwestern even displays one billboard suggesting that students may travel to class by canoe or pirogue). Anyone attending a reception on any Louisiana campus will see quite a melange of dress styles: administrators and board members in stiff, old-fashioned suits; faculty in dungarees; students in the usual gym clothing; mid-level staffers in what might be described as the Old Navy Elegant or the Kohl’s Chic styles. Both of these examples, however understandable their origins and economics might be, show universities trying to follow the lead of everyone at the same time—to serve rather than transform the ideologies of every clientele in the book. Until Louisiana’s universities develop more of a sense for elegance and for the generous exceptionalism that goes with it, they will continue to send a signal to legislators and other decisionmakers that anything goes: that, rather than being servant leaders for a great society, academic professionals never really lead, but only serve.

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