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Commentary: A Modest Proposal

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 18 - January 25, 1996

In the right state [the scholar] is Man Thinking....when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking. Ralph Waldo Emerson (8-31-1837)

Recently I awoke midway through a WVTF news item: a visiting speaker had warned an audience of professors that tenure is on its way out. First, universities are increasingly being run in the manner of corporations. In addition, women and members of minority groups oppose the tenure of the entrenched faculty members who they might otherwise displace.

Because of the comparison with corporations, it appears that academic power is passing into the hands of university administrators. In a sense, that is incongruous because, of the three traditional components of a university-students, the faculty, and the administration-only the administration can be eliminated without destroying the university as a seat of learning. Neither administration-plus-students nor administration-plus-faculty constitutes a university. Faculty members and students are a university; essential housekeeping chores can be performed by individuals drawn from either of these two components, though most often from the faculty.

Related to and extending the partially heard news item was a Faculty Senate memorandum received shortly afterwards regarding post-tenure faculty evaluations. Tenure apparently remains a problem--a thorn in one's side. The dismissal of a tenured professor remains difficult. To an increasing extent (but not wholly so as yet) the proposed evaluations involve administrative officers. This is made clear by the admonition, "If the university cannot do it, the state will."

My modest proposal is this: every faculty member who accepts a deanship or higher administrative post forfeits his or her tenure. Administrators, as a consequence, would fall into the same category as athletic coaches and highly paid, non-academic administrative officers.

If a need arises to downsize a university, those dismissed can be drawn from its administration. First, of their own choice, these persons are no longer tenured. Second, the administration is the one component of a university that can be dispensed with. A related point can be made with respect to "unsatisfactory" tenured professors: at least in the sciences, many are former administrators who have reverted to their tenured professorships--to "just" teaching as one official has expressed it. The word "just" strongly implies that fake pearls are often being cast before students in these revertants' classrooms.

Concealed within my proposal is a benefit that would become evident only in time. As successive cycles of dismissals of non-tenured administrators occurred, and as needed replacements were drawn (coaxed) from the ranks of increasingly devoted faculty members, the university's representatives might regain the ability to explain to students, parents, alumni, taxpayers, and lawmakers what the purpose of a university really is: to educate, not to train. To educate students in preparation for the complexities of life, not to train them with respect to the complications--mathematical or physical-of individual professions and technologies. Such training, if that is what the student seeks, is best attained at a conservatory or a high-quality specialized community or junior college.

Dwight Eisenhower, as president of Columbia University, once chastised his faculty members for the casual, even slovenly, manner with which they filed into a meeting he had called. The university, he declared, expected better of them. A senior professor (and Nobel laureate) glanced about, and then addressed Eisenhower: "But, Mr. President, this is your university." He was half right; students are the other half. But, the point he made is one that has been largely lost sight of in recent years.

Bruce Wallace, university distinguished professor emeritus