Malaise in the halls of ivy

Robert L. Caret

December 18, 1992|By Robert L. Caret

H. L. Mencken had a simple idea for reforming American higher education. He suggested burning the buildings and hanging the professors. As I read the newspapers this week, I'm thinking Mencken's idea is catching on.

Devastating budget cuts -- and a generally negative atmosphere surrounding higher education -- have been disastrous to our institutions. Consider what has happened:

* We have already experienced a cut of about 20 percent in state support.

* The University of Maryland Board of Regents has mandated the elimination of about 100 programs across the system. Though it will take years to work through the process, the negative implications and effect on faculty morale, potential students and students currently enrolled cannot be measured.

* The vast majority of all hiring has been frozen, upgrades are almost non-existent, furloughs and layoffs have become part of our year-to-year planning, and many of the things we do to support students, such as counseling, have been cut so that they can barely operate.

* There have been virtually no pay increases for faculty and staff for two years.

* Demands for "accountability" abound in the form of program evaluation reports, assessment reports, minority achievement reports and four-year "cost containment" reports.

* Very few programs, if any, are being approved, and there is a call for the elimination of many others. Although the majority of our programs are healthy, I get the feeling that someone wants to eliminate some of them just to show that it can be done.

* Faculty workload is under scrutiny in the General Assembly, as is the entire institution of tenure.

What a sad portrait to paint for a state that only four years ago was committed to developing one of the nation's leading higher education systems!

To give you some sense of the breadth of criticism, let me paraphrase from the table of contents of "ProfScam," by Charles J. Sykes, one of the books that helped set this negative tone. There are chapters on the "flight from teaching," the "crucifixion of teaching," the "weird world of academic journals" and so on.

You don't have to be a soothsayer to get a sense that Mr. Sykes, a journalist by trade, is not about to write a monograph extolling the virtues of higher education.

Derek Bok, the immediate past president of Harvard, helps to clarify this criticism from an academic perspective. In a recent article in Change magazine, Dr. Bok agrees that public opinion of higher education is turning negative. He does not fully understand what caused it. The United States still has the strongest higher education system in the world. Students still compete to attend our most prestigious colleges and universities, and our costs are still reasonable.

Dr. Bok concludes that there is no evidence of a decline in our performance. But he does feel that ". . . the public has finally come to believe quite strongly that our institutions -- particularly our leading universities -- are not making the education of students a top priority. They may not have it quite right -- they are often wrong about the facts," he says, "but they are right about our priorities, and they do not like what they see."

We have to fight back. Since their inception, colleges and universities have served as the core of free thinking and new ideas for society. They need to be responsive to the society that supports them. But there is a complementary relationship here: Society also needs to support its institutions of higher learning. If we are not mutually supportive, our society will fail.

If we aren't able to maintain control of our own destiny, someone other than faculty may be deciding who teaches in our classrooms, what is taught, who gets in and who graduates. When that happens, Mencken will have been vindicated.

Robert L. Caret is provost and executive vice president of Towson State University.

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