An Open Letter to a New University President

02/12/2013 11:39 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013
  • Daniel Asia Composer; Professor, University of Arizona

An Open Letter to a University President:

Dear President:

I am the fellow who sent you flowers on one of your first days on the job back in August. You have been President now for about 5 months, give or take a few. My hope is that you are getting the lay of the land, your sea-legs (in a location short of water) so to speak. I thought it is about time for us to talk about the state of the University. As you know this is a rather large subject, but it seemed to me, that since it is the start of a new calendar year, now is as good a time as any to begin.

I have decided to let the public eavesdrop on our conversation. Since we are both employees of the state, it is the public's right to know of our conversation, even if it is a little one-sided, as I am doing most of the talking (writing). My ruminations will cover both large and small issues, in no particular order of importance, and will range from the philosophical to historical, the lofty to the mundane. Hopefully by the end of this letter I will have touched on issues that we might wish to continue speaking about, because these issues affect not just the two of us, but our entire community, as well as the country.

To begin, let me mention in memoriam two great men who died recently who will have an impact on the contents of this letter. John Silber was one of the great university presidents of the past fifty years. As the leader of Boston University, he transformed that institution from a second rate University into one of world stature. He did it by being outspoken, difficult, and confrontational. He did not accept the status quo, and he spoke the truth as he saw it. Thus, he was considered a pain in the rear by just about one and all, but, and it is a huge but, he actually accomplished something.

Jacque Barzun was one of our most down-to- earth cultural and educational critics, whose mind ranged wide and far. He was also for many years one of the Columbia University's top administrators. His life in academia traversed the years of the secluded university to its post-war (that's WWII) transformation into a worldly multiversity, the unwieldy beast that we confront today.

Why do I mention these two gentlemen, and recommend them to you? I do so for the simple reason that you have some important choices to make. Our past four presidents were here on average about 5-6 years. They each collected about two million dollars in their service to the institution, and presided over it with magnanimity, and effectively did little to alter its culture. Maybe this is an impossible task, like quickly changing the course of a large ocean-going ship. But I don't think they understood the real task. So your choice is, will you tackle some of the big issues, or just pass on through like your predecessors. Silber and Barzun decided to have a real effect on the nature of the university. The question is, will you?

The university is part of the larger culture, and thus participates in its strengths and weaknesses. We are at the height of an educational bubble, not unlike the housing bubble of a few years ago. Tuition cannot continue its constant rise at unprecedented rates, as most of the costs are absorbed by students receiving higher subsidies from the government, which is quickly going broke. When the bubble bursts, it will not be a pretty picture. GM had to cut Pontiac when it went into bankruptcy. You should be looking at what your going to be cutting or spinning-off right now. Why not send some of the professional schools on their way? How are hospitals and cancer centers part of the primary educational mission? Get 'em off the books. Cut as much as possible of the bureaucratic waste that has built-up over the last fifty years. Get rid of study areas that have no reason, other than political ones, for existing, and if there is any decent scholarship resident there, fold it into established departments. If we no longer act in loco parentis in regards to sex and drugs, why coddle students in regard, to their physical and psychic health, or try to better the apartments and fitness centers of the private sector, unless there is a clear added value we provide? Why do we have our own police department when the city's should do? Why have a catering division when it is cheaper and better to order in?

The University is not primarily a welfare agency, social institution, employer, Community, values inculcator, provider of research studies for government or business, creator of spin-offs of high-tech or bio companies. The institution's primary job is to educate. If it is not spending most of it time, energy, and money on this mission, it is failing.

And that we are failing is no longer a matter of discussion- it is fact. Like most institutions of higher learning, studies show that students know about as much coming in as they do going out. They achieve little to no gains in critical thinking, or the abilities to express themselves verbally or in writing. They will not know much about the course and breadth of American history, and they will know almost nothing of the civilizational qualities that have made this country so exceptional. They will not know how their democracy functions, and they will know nothing of the economic system which has led them to unprecedented heights of healthiness and life expectancy, material comforts undreamed of by previous generations, and the ability to lead their lives in relative freedom. They routinely study less than 12 hours per week, less than half of the norm of a generation ago, but their grades are higher. They view college life as a place for a good four-year social experience.

They will not know what they should because we have let them down. They have been let down by all the major components of this institution: faculty, admini-strators, regents, and alumni. Let's take each of these separately and then in the way they interact.

The faculty of the UA is not unsimilar to those at any other good university. There are those who take their work very seriously, some who coast, and some who should have left long ago. They all find themselves however in the same environment, one that is predicated on the post WWII scientific model. They are governed by the trifecta of research, teaching, and service, expressed here in the order of institutional importance. Research, in the scientific sense, means forward thinking, implies or necessitates big labs, big expenditures of money (usually of the federal type), and great benefits for mankind. The problem of course is that it requires huge amounts of time, a huge bureaucracy, paperwork, adherence to Federal requirements and regulations, and a huge institutional investment. And that is just the start of it. The research model has infected all other areas, namely the social sciences, and arts and humanities, where it generally doesn't apply, is counterproductive, and distorts the nature of those enterprises. Do we actually need "research" on the social effects of Scoobie-Doo, or the implications of the music of the Beasty Boys, or the manifestations of hip-hop culture?

In this regard, it is time to look at the curriculum and how it is created. There is no longer any center to the curriculum, no requirements other than distributional ones. It is a world where all knowledge is considered of equal value, and thus, of no value. We offer our students no path or guidance through this morass. Faculty often teach to their particular research area, rather than to anything of universal significance. The curriculum is so broad as to be comical. What this does not produce is a generation of any common understandings or language. Thus, this generation will find it even more difficult to speak with each other, to actually be understood.

Teaching is evaluated by the students. How is it possible for students to know what they should be learning? Only malfeasance, such as a professor not showing up or not preparing could show up on this kind of instrument. Right now the system is gamed, as faculty know that the surest way to get good evaluations is to make the class as easy as possible and provide all students with a good grades. No one complains, as parents think their children are doing well and administrators and faculty don't have to hassle with students arguing about their grades. The only losers are the students who haven't learned much, and society, namely employers who get employees who are skill-less and unknowledgable, and a democracy that gets participants who are aren't capable of making informed decisions.

Service is an amorphous category that includes sitting on various committees, either departmental, school, or university. This is a part of perceived rather than real democracy, as most decisions of consequence are made by administrators. It can also be accounted for by the participation in national educational organizations or other scholarly organizations, as well as local faculty governance.

The problem is that there is generally almost no serious debate of any serious issue. The reason for this is that most faculties are now engaged in groupthink, generally of the liberal kind. Again, this is just fact not conjecture. Faculties are universally liberal, with the areas of the social sciences and humanities being almost exclusively so. Thus, in matters that should really matter to the institution and society at large, uniformity of opinion is already assured. There is no diversity of thought at this or any other university, and this is a travesty. I can assure you that in matters that require serious discussion, none will be found here. Barzun notes this phenomenon in the sixties (it has gotten exponentially worse since then) and asks the truly prescient question, would (or have) American faculty caved into a unitary view of the world, in the same way German faculty did with National Socialism (Nazi ideology)? I would say sadly that this is already the case. Our students are a difficult lot. They have had educations in K-12 that have been generally lackluster; they have been allowed to coast; standards are not rigorous, and certainly not enforced; but their self-esteem is very high, as is their sense of entitlement. They care mostly about education for the credential they will obtain, are thus obsessed with grades rather than learning. Perhaps as the result of divorce, they are emotionally flat, lacking any sense of personal awareness of their internal emotional world. They are careful to avoid judgment lest they offend, and thus their watchword is "whatever".

Administrators have a difficult task. They must keep this mass of divergent interests somehow in working order. Faculty and students alike wish to be left alone to pursue their own interests. The ever-present lack of money compounds the problem. But then this scarcity has always been, so it shouldn't persist as an ever- present irritant. As Chief Administrator I don't envy you. But how might you improve this situation? Make sure that you are hearing the voices of not just those around you, who, as in all such situations, have a tendency to please, and thus rarely disagree. Make sure you seek out contrarian opinions, because you will not hear them unless you do so.

The Regents should be ensuring the quality of the education being presented by the University. They should ensure that it is not politicized. They are not fulfilling these tasks.

This brings us to another issue, that of sports. In regards to this issue, you cannot act alone, but only in concert with your peers. The professionalization of sports on campus is a major moral issue. If society wishes to reward those who engage in professional sports at the level it does, this is at least a function of a free market responding to the public's desires. It doesn't impinge on any other business or enterprise. Sadly this is not the case in academia. The present position of sports in the academy is a disaster for morale, and compromises the entire institution. Student athletes who would never be admitted because they don't have the tools or capacity to succeed in the University are nonetheless admitted. Vast resources are put at their disposal to ensure that they will not fail in the limited number of classes they will take. It is known that they are present only until they are drafted or become promising to their professional brethren. This is supported all with tax deductible contributions which should compromise the integrity of the not-for-profit status of the university. Salaries of coaches are at a level that again strains the relationship of faculty and administrators. To suggest that this is somehow in line with market forces makes a joke of that concept.

The role of alumni, and alumni giving, in all of this is also suspect and within your purview. It is said that sports departments are revenue neutral. I don't think this is possibly true, particularly when one puts into the equation precious space taken for buildings and their maintenance. Even if it were, the decline it produces in moral capital among the participants is overwhelming. Alumni should be strongly encouraged to give their money to units other than sports. Football and basketball teams should become farm teams of their respective sports, as already exists in baseball.

You should not accept money that encourages new programs that are in response to a momentary phenomenon, no matter how much money is thrown your way. As tragic as the shooting was a year ago, a Civility Institute is not a needed or welcomed response. Couldn't a response have found a place in a political science course or religion? Politically motivated murders, not to mention brotherly strife (Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, come to mind), are, I hope, mentioned in the occasional course, and in a context that might even enrich the student.

Alumni and other givers should be encouraged to give money to those areas of true educational importance and efficacy. This argument needs to be made by you and other administrators. It must be clear whether a gift actually benefits or compromises the institution. I certainly don't have to tell you about associated costs. You know that it is rare the gift that is in fact a free lunch.

Barzun wrote his book The American University in 1968. The difficulties he perceived then have only grown larger. So let's end this round of discussion with some sound-bites from his summary chapter 'The Choice Ahead', with my commentary and annotations to help define where we are today. I will paraphrase some of Barzun's comments in the interest of brevity and directness.

A university must have a center. What is the modern university's center? My sense would be that it is Big Science and Big Sports. Does this comprise a sufficient educational 'center'? I think not, but this is about all that is ever heard from or about.

"The faculty, which is the university, must convey at every turn what education is.." The faculty has abdicated in this responsibility, and younger faculty simply don't know that this is their obligation and primary task.

"SIMPLIFY...The method is austerity, (or more correctly put) sobriety."
" In the new university too much goes on, and not enough; too many courses are offered, at an insufficient density of instruction." This is due to faculty inability to address the problem, plain and simple. You and the Provost should suggest that all Deans address this problem. All curricula should be trimmed. The demands of certain areas, departments, or schools, that to be competent, students must take only courses in the area of their major, or that it need take five years, is simply preposterous and the result of myopia and a specialist's hubris.

The reason for the existence of the University is that it is "the guardian of learning".
"This implies that academic scholarship turn serious about its significance.." The term is to mean the "opposite of solemn on one side and make-believe on the other."
It is not unusual in English departments now for students not to have to take a course on Shakespeare, widely understood as the greatest writer in the English language. The majority of our students have either never heard of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, or never seen a picture by the first two and never heard a work by the latter three. Any, and all, supposedly educated persons need to have encountered these geniuses and their works; without this, the tradition will be broken, and then, ultimately lost. We stand on the shoulders of the geniuses of the past, and nothing current can be truly known, evaluated, and then yes, ultimately judged, without the context that the past provides. We have become, and will continue to be, shallow creatures without this confrontation with greatness. How is this transformation to be achieved? You and the provost should mandate a "reduction in teaching loads and course offerings, coerced (I would add silly) research", and by so doing, demand a return to seriousness. You should state, and require of your faculty, that they cease their incessant relativism, and recognize that "truth is what learning is after". There may be different understandings of what this means in the different disciplines, but this is the strength of the University. Students must be taught that different truth systems can co-exist, that they might actually broaden our understanding of the world. Thus, religion and science can mutually reinforce each other, as one exists to define our moral relationship to each other, and the other seeks to understand the laws of the universe. That they each now seem to function in relationship to the Unknowable (also known as God) would make for a truly interesting cross-disciplinary conversation.

Maybe it is worth your mentioning to our students that there is no short-cut in real education. It is hard work, requires lots of times, and can't be undertaken haphazardly, or as a side event. This will happen only if faculty are brought on board to rigorously enforce academic standards.

The University is not a business, a welfare agency, a political agency, and definitely not a democracy. We cannot do everything for all. To recover its independence and freedom it needs only two characteristics, courage and self-knowledge. "Not all good things are good for us." Education (and not indoctrination) is our task. University endowment or state subsidy, or state given land, is for education; " it is misuse of funds and talent to embark on other than educational efforts." How then, can the expenditure of treasure and time in what is all but in name, professional sports, be justified? In this matter you, and your colleagues across the country, need to stand up to your alumni, civic interest groups, ESPN, and Nike, and say no, this is not what we are about. When someone wishes to give you money with the beneficent idea of creating something like the National Institute for Civility (rather Orwellian in sound, don't you think), politely say "While a good cause, no thanks, this isn't central to our mission." The university should not be afraid of its own dignity. We should never cease to underscore the inherent dignity of education, and education for its own worth, aside from its value in future earning power, or as a credential for future employment.

And lastly, let's talk about you as president. If anybody needs rescue, or to be 'simplified, it would be your position. Because you are, or should be, head of the University. You shouldn't be the chief fundraiser, or a political hand shaker. Your job is not to make faculty, staff, or students, happy. Your chief function is to ensure that the institution fulfills its primary mission, providing the highest quality education possible. If this means ruffling feathers and kicking butt a la Silber, or backing away now and then to take time to think a la Barzun, or a third way that is all yours, please just do it (oops, there's that Nike influence again). There would be nothing worse than to just tread water for the next five years.