Illusions Of Greatness

Morris Freedman

September 11, 1990|By Morris Freedman

COLLEGE PARK — In an article on Tuesday's Opinion Commentary page, the academic vice president of the University of Maryland was incorrectly identified. He is Jay Robert Dorfman, who formerly served as the university's dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

IS THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland at last launched on an ascent to academic greatness marred only by an unfortunate and irrelevant series of athletic setbacks?

The statewide university system has just completed an elaborate and thoughtful reorganization. College Park, proclaimed the flagship campus, is shaking down to accommodate a smaller and more select undergraduate body and to concen- trate on research and graduate study. The campus, as we begin the new year, is as physically torn up, inside and out, as a new institution fresh off the planning tables. It would be grand indeed to believe a new era is beginning.


Obviously, the budget cutbacks announced last week will be a hindrance. But quite apart from funding, many of the academic advances, beyond statistical im- provements in the scores of freshmen, may be simply illusory.

Take first the ''new'' curriculum designed to do right by the more select undergraduate population. The best of these students will no longer be able to mingle for their full four years in specially designed liberal-arts courses with other superior students from all areas of the campus. Students at the country's most select undergraduate colleges look forward normally to such camaraderie. The new undergraduate population at Maryland will funnel into carefully separated pathways after their sophomore year.

Troubling, too, is the policy of transplanting celebrities from outside instead of cultivating native talent. If we count as gains academic stars recruited from Harvard and comparable institutions, as some on campus have lately been doing, we ought in fairness also to count our losses to such places. The English department alone has given up professors to Harvard, ++ Duke, Stanford and the City University of New York, among others. Also I think any neutral scorekeeper would have to credit other local Washington and Virginia institutions with their comparable catches of international literary, academic and political stars.

Instead of descending to such mechanical scorekeeping, we ought to recognize, more than ever now that we aim so specifically for rooted, organic intellectual superiority, that while stars may contribute to a campus' external visibility, they may contribute little to the internal intellectual life, seeing few students or colleagues and rarely participating in normal academic activity. We do not yet have such a critical mass of superior faculty that we can afford to subsidize too many in lonely and distant pursuits.

In planning for greatness, we have not solicitously tended to the strengthening of our infrastructure. We succumb eagerly to fads and fashions. Unlike institutions with which we compare ourselves, we have done little to phase in rationalized retirement of senior faculty, or to take advantage of their experience in preparing for coming shortages in major disciplines.

Many of the recent efforts at improvement concentrate on appearance and gimmickry. An elaborate new telephone system will enable callers on campus to get local numbers by prefixing the long-distance area code. Some new classrooms have complex audio-visual systems but no chairs for teachers. Massive earth-moving enterprises repeatedly tear up and reconstitute acres of forest and lawn. The basement of Reckord Armory has been refurbished to provide sparkling new air-conditioned classrooms, many of which cannot reasonably be used most of the time, except for picture-taking, because of the unceasing basketball playing above.

Certainly an attractive environment contributes to learning, and famous professors triumphantly carry a university's pennants to distant places. I wonder, though, whether much of the activity isn't in the familiar pattern of repeated bursts of agitation over the decades that have been substituted for considered, productive improvement.

Obviously the university will benefit academically and in morale from such additions as the new National Archives building and the decorative fountains in front of Main Administration. But we have hardly begun to take advantage of cooperative arrangements with museums, businesses, government centers, libraries, publishing enterprises in Greenbelt, Bethesda, Washington and Baltimore. We continue to carry ourselves parochially and provincially instead of as a major participant in a world metropolitan center.

I think few question the popularity of President William E. Kirwan, a professor of mathematics, widely known as ''Brit,'' or the broad disciplinary dedication of the academic vice president, J. Irwin Dorfman, former dean of engineering. But I sense both have fallen into a pattern of welcoming advice from supporters mainly, of responding to unsympathetic comment and criticism with old-fashioned defensiveness, cajolery, soft-soaping and semantic juggling. (General Honors was renamed ''University Honors'' and reduced to a two-year program.) Suggestions are earnestly solicited and just as earnestly canceled out with syrupy bureaucratese when offered.

Like most of my colleagues, I continue to expect much from Brit and Irwin, not least because they did apparently represent the choice of so many faculty. But, as I say, I sadly wonder about the realities.

Mr. Freedman teaches at the University of Maryland.

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