The Idea of a University as a Machine with Interchangeable )) Parts

JERRY MILLER

January 06, 1993|By JERRY MILLER

In reorganizing Maryland's university system, the Board o Regents said changes were needed because of economic hard times.

So it has decreed that students transfer from schools which require the least state funding per student to schools which require the highest state funding per student. Programs at the most efficiently run institutions are being transferred to the institutions that already cost the state the most.

It is as if the board were trying to convince us that the state can get the most out of its educational dollars by buying brand-name products at Saks instead of Wal-Mart.

The board also claimed that the changes are needed to improve the quality of education. But it did no quality study whatsoever before making its decisions, with the result that some of the best programs in the state are scheduled for elimination.

To give only two examples: the theater major at UMBC that is regularly invited to perform at the Kennedy Center by the American College Theater Festival is to be abolished. So is the chemistry major at Salisbury State that is accredited by the Maryland Chemical Association.

What, then, is the reason for these changes? It is revealing that the board acted without any serious study, or any consultation with those to be affected by its plan. Unwilling to work at developing a consensus concerning the direction of the university system, Chancellor Langenberg and the regents apparently decided to assume direct control over the supposedly autonomous institutions whose quality and efficiency they are supposed to promote.

It is as if the board of the General Motors, realizing that it has failed to give direction to the company, decided to try its hand at engineering a new car -- without bothering to consult with any of the thousands of engineers in its employ.

But the mistake the regents are making in recommending a bizarre reshuffling of programs from one institution to another is actually much deeper and more serious. You cannot build a college the way you build a car. For a college is not a machine. It is a community.

Machines have replacable and interchangeable parts. You can take parts from one of them and put them in another. But when you do this to a community you destroy it. A community is held together by deep bonds of affection and mutual commitment to a common vision. Every component plays a unique and irreplaceable role.

If you spend a few days on any of the college campuses of this state, you will find that those teaching classes and those taking them are bound together in just such a community. Professors and students are not like carburetors and spark plugs. They share a common passion for debate and dialogue about everything under the sun.

This is why students and teachers alike are passionate about their colleges -- the place, large or small, where intellectual and personal community is fostered and flourishes. You do not need to be a professional sociologist to know that such an experience of community is to be found almost nowhere else in our society.

You cannot abolish a history major at one school, a chemistry major at another, shuffle programs around as if they were spare parts, without undermining the integrity of every school involved.

The Board of Regents has jeopardized the very existence of these rare and precious communities. Those of us who belong to them intend to fight for them.

Jerry Miller is professor of philosophy at Salisbury State University.

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