“It could be said that a liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon the student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc., in the future. A liberal education rests on the assumption that nature and human nature do not change very much or very fast and that one therefore needs to understand the past. The practical educators assume that human society itself is the only significant context, that change is therefore fundamental, constant, and necessary, that the future will be wholly unlike the past, that the past is outmoded, irrelevant, and an encumbrance upon the future — the present being only a time for dividing past from future, for getting ready.
But these definitions, based on division and opposition, are too simple. It is easy, accepting the viewpoint of either side, to find fault with the other. But the wrong is on neither side; it is in their division…
Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: “relevance,” based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future. But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd: the specialist professor of one or another of the liberal arts, the custodian of an inheritance he has learned much about, but nothing from.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
It is the beginning of the 23 spring semester and an increasingly agitated faculty gather in the auditorium to listen to presentations the university president and vice-president for academic affairs. What I and they didn’t know that day is that this would be the last time any of us participated in the pre-semester meeting. Within the context of the university, these are the top two positions. The VP was the latest interim person filling the position in a long line of predecessors over the past few years. Each holding the position for about a year or less before leaving. I think she was #5 or #6 over the same number of years. I lost count.
When I started teaching here, the university was riding high. Student enrollment had already doubled from where it was a decade earlier and wasn’t slowing down. It was an era when high schools and politicians pushed students toward universities and away from trade schools. It was easy to get in and financial aid was readily available. In the years of growth, the physical infrastructure and administration of the university swelled. For years, an overflow of students had to be housed in local hotels because there weren’t enough dorm rooms available in student housing to accommodate the record enrollment. To meet the demand in those years, the university aggressively tore down older buildings and replaced them with newer and larger structures for student housing, classrooms and administration.
Enrollment was up, tuition was up, buildings were going up, and the number of administrators was up. For a while it seemed like you couldn’t walk across campus without knocking over a vice-president of something. For the university, life was good.
However, on this day things weren’t so good. The university has been in a slump over past few years. After unprecedented growth for almost twenty years, it hit a wall after enrollment peaked and then another wall called Covid. The pandemic pushed academics out of physical classrooms and into online programs which don’t require students to ever step foot on campus and have much higher dropout rates.
Enrollment stalled and then started dropping, but numbers posted for the public were padded by adding high school students taking concurrent college courses to look like things weren’t as bad as they were. Then they plunged with student enrollment dropping by 30% and continuing to drop like a locomotive off the side of a cliff. To make matters worse, all those new buildings cost money to operate and maintain and they no longer had the tuition money coming in to pay for it.
And yet, the administration still wanted to build new buildings.
Efforts to stem the mass exodus were largely pointed at the faculty, with increasing pressure make courses more flexible, accelerate programs and generally make going to college more convenient for students. The past few years had seen a steady stream of reduced program course requirements, combined with subtle suggestions for us to offer more leniency in grading, and ultimately do whatever we can to ensure students passed our courses, completed degrees and got across the graduation stage. To be sure, it was never phrased as that. Those requests came more in the form of do whatever we needed to do to help students be “successful” which could be interpreted as anything from offering extra tutoring to allowing students to retake exams or turn in assignments well after deadlines had passed. Regardless, the message was clear. We need more students graduating, period.
The university needed higher graduation rates in a time when student attrition was astronomical. This strain was courtesy of changes made to state and federal funding for state universities that used graduation rates as the primary metric to judge university success and funding. That means the universities with higher graduation rates get more money.
As a result, the university began implementation of awarding associate degrees after students had completed their general education requirements and moving more degree minors into “certificates” in order to expand what it means to get a diploma and be able to use those expanded numbers to report higher graduation rates to the state. Students understood the subtext and some began to view their time there as paying for a degree instead of getting an education. Get in and get out. Quantity over Quality.
Meanwhile, the encroachment of number crunchers and increased efforts for academic assessment that have plagued K-12 schools, marched into higher education putting a microscope on faculty to measure and be evaluated on things that may or may not be relevant depending on their particular disciplines. What it meant in practicality, is lowering expectations for students so they pass, re-enroll and keep those tuition and government dollars flowing.
To say the faculty weren’t happy is an understatement. We felt like we were already depleted and being stretched to our limit with no relief in sight. The year before the faculty had held a vote of no confidence in the university president that seemed to have no effect.
To put it in agricultural terms, the administration was like a corporate farmer killing the soil trying to squeeze out dollars. Function follows form.
While everyone seemed to be chasing numbers, the single most important thing that nobody seemed to be considering, was what purpose the university was actually supposed to be serving?