Education: Future Imperfect

Faculty Are No Longer the Heart of Many Public Colleges and Universities

Part of the University of Maine’s annual graduation ceremonies–there are nowadays morning and afternoon commencements to accommodate the many graduates and their families and friends–is a moment when the faculty present rise from in front of the elevated stage, turn toward the students and family and friends mostly behind them, and receive brief applause. In my twenty-seven years at UMaine I have attended many commencements, but I increasingly resent this moment: NOT because the graduates and their families and friends are insincere in their applause–they are not–but because some of the powerbrokers on the stage have ever less respect for the faculty.

The traditional notion that the faculty are the genuine heart of colleges and universities no longer holds in much of American higher education. Many excellent books and articles have been published in recent years on the growing attack by governors and mayors, state and local legislators, and business leaders on public higher education as being ever more out of touch with the “public interest”–as these powerbrokers define it. There is no need to repeat the obsession with practical courses, programs, departments, and colleges  that pervades these attacks. Or the rehashing of anti-intellectual arguments that have always been a dangerous (in my biased view) part of American culture.

What DOES need mention is the indifference bordering on contempt for faculty that one finds in ever more public–and, to be sure, sometimes private–colleges and universities. There are by now countless invocations of the phrase that professors are no longer “the sage on the stage” but, at best, the peer of their students, even their undergraduates. Political and business leaders–be they called trustees or regents or directors–demand compliance by faculty to short-term business and corporate models that invariably don’t apply to much of academic life.

Both the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education have recently published illuminating stories about the persistent conflict at the storied University of Virginia between its current President–who was formerly Provost at the University of Michigan–and the head of UVA’s governing board. Last year President Teresa Sullivan resigned after only two years because she was apparently about to be fired otherwise. The enormous protest that ensued led to her eventual rehiring, but tensions remain. Rector Helen Dragas, the owner of a moderate-sized real estate agency, in effect demanded that her business style become that of UVA. One needn’t be familiar with UVA to wonder.