Friday, September 24, 2004

The heart of an issue

Friends - This article was emailed to various students for discussion by the Pastor, so I felt it appropriate to see what you all think...

Beaufort, S.C. - Much has been made in recent years of the
< unwillingness among college and university presidents to
< venture above the parapet and challenge some of the
< shibboleths of higher education. By this I do not mean
< advocacy of political positions. Presidents who would keep
< their campuses places where ideas are in fact freely
< exchanged ought to avoid signing public letters or
< endorsing candidates, tempting as it may be.
< No, I mean something else. I retired in June as president
< of Middlebury College in Vermont, but during my 13-year
< tenure I was as guilty as any of my colleagues of failing
< to take bold positions on public matters that merit serious
< debate. Now, a less vulnerable member of the faculty once
< more, I dare to unburden myself of a few observations. As
< the new school year begins, there are many things I suspect
< university presidents would like to say to their various
< constituencies but dare not.
< To faculties and governing boards: tenure is a great
< solution to the problems of the 1940's, when the faculty
< was mostly male and academic freedom was at genuine risk.
< Why must institutions make a judgment that has lifetime
< consequences after a mere six or seven years? Publication
< may take longer in some fields than in others, and familial
< obligations frequently interrupt careers. Why not a system
< of contracts of varying length, including lifetime for the
< most valuable colleagues, that acknowledges the realities
< of academic life in the 21st century?
< Moreover, when most tenure documents were originally
< adopted, faculty members had little protection. Today,
< almost every negative tenure decision is appealed. Appeals
< not upheld internally are taken to court. Few if any of
< these appeals have as their basis a denial of academic
< freedom.
< To current and prospective parents (and editors of
< magazines that profit by the American public's fascination
< with rankings): student/faculty ratio is overrated as a
< measure of quality. Can any faculty member persuasively
< argue that a class of eight or nine students is
< qualitatively superior to a class of 10 or 11? How many
< classes at any institution, large or small, are the actual
< size of the celebrated ratio? (Answer: very few.)
< More meaningful statistics, for those seeking to measure
< quality of education in terms of faculty accessibility, are
< average class size, average instructional load, percentage
< of faculty members who are full-time, and how frequently
< professors hold office hours or take their meals in student
< dining halls. And not all subjects are best learned around
< a seminar table. The large lecture, well designed and
< delivered, can, in fact, be a superior way to learn certain
< subjects.
< To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social
< policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college
< students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an
< abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this
< acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses
< have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law
< enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.
< Neither state is desirable. State legislators, many of whom
< will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial
< of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age.
< Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind
< closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of
< prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college
< president will say that drinking has become less of a
< problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we
< expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to
< graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil?
< Colleges should be given the chance to educate students,
< who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate
< use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the
< open.
< And please - hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a
< charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This
< has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we'd
< raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the
< problem.
< I hope the public, and the higher education community, will
< be willing to engage these issues seriously and
< respectfully. My head is now well above the parapet.
< Gaudeamus igitur!
< John M. McCardell Jr. is college professor and president
< emeritus of Middlebury College.


Blogger Pertinacious Papist said...

A lot of food for thought here. While I can't comment in any informed way on the political history of tenure, I can't deny that it's a great security blanket-- and perhaps one that some faculty earn precipitously, before the complexion of their careers becomes well defined.

September 29, 2004 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I must say I agree with the critique of the use of student/faculty ration made here. A student teacher ratio of 3:1 is still not desiriable if that one professor is teaching outside of his/her specialty or is incapable of teaching well. And one cannot rate faculty by looking at their credentials. The best way to find out about a school is to go there, sit in on classes, and perhaps most importantly TALK TO ANYONE AND EVERYONE. Statistics and facts ar meant to inflate the schools image (hopefully not too inaccurately), but the students and probably faculty members too will most likely not hide the "bad stuff." I am always leary when visiting a school says, "Well you won't find anything wrong here at _______________." Sorry friend, perfection is not attainable.

September 29, 2004 at 10:52 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home