By Ellsworth R. Fuhrman,
Faculty Senate past president
Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 15 - December 10, 1998
The gnashing of teeth about the state of higher education has been going on for some time. Different individuals and organizations claim that there are various crises in higher education. The crises are said to be multiple and diverse: an inadequate or un-enforced core curriculum, overpaid professors, the lack of moral training for students, the corporatization of the university, student consumerism, top heavy administrations, the lack of adequate and stable financing, the high costs of higher education, low retention rates, grade inflation, unsafe campuses, and radical agendas.
Various constituencies make these criticisms. The critique of higher education emanates from: taxpayers, elected officials, state governing boards, boards of visitors, parents, business and corporate leaders, students (graduate and undergraduate), and not least of all, faculty members themselves.
Culprits for these crises are sought and identified: declining state and federal support for education, corporations insinuating themselves into the university, unprepared students, and faculty members who are mis- and malfeasant in the performance of their duties.
I do not have time today to pursue all of the criticisms and culprits enumerated by the various constituencies. What I would like to do instead is to encourage faculty members to actively join the nation-wide dialogue about the future of higher education. Participation in this dialogue does not ensure that the problems of higher education will be solved or further criticism of faculty abated. Nonetheless, without the voice of the faculty others less central to the mission of the university will define the debate and propose the solutions. We can no longer afford both literally and metaphorically, to be silent.
The days of economic prosperity for education are gone. We used to be able to stay in our offices, do our research, write our articles and books, sit on graduate committees, and teach and advise undergraduate students. We could expect and often received a healthy salary raise in return for our efforts. What we took for granted was that salary raises, operating budgets and things of similar ilk would continue to rise. Others took care of budgetary concerns: department heads, deans, provosts, and presidents. But now, even with the best efforts of administrators, adequate and stable funding for higher education is no longer assured.
And while funding concerns are serious, attacks against higher education are more than just economic ones. The whole educational enterprise is being questioned, critiqued, and re-defined by multiple sources. We cannot expect the administration to keep the wolves at bay while we do our jobs as we have traditionally done them--particularly not when the battleground now includes the very substance and definition of these jobs.
We the faculty, not the buildings or computers, are the important element in the new information society. Knowledge is created and distributed by us and our colleagues around the world. We are the knowledge producers. The faculty does the research, the service, and the teaching. Administrators do not. Students do not. Political representatives do not. Parents do not. Taxpayers do not. Boards of visitors do not. Although all of the above and many more are the recipients of faculty efforts, we the faculty are the ones engaged in the educational enterprise.
We the faculty have to come out of our offices and hallways and move away from just conversations with one another to join in a public dialogue about who we are and what we do. We have to engage the mass media, legislators at all levels, students and parents, higher-education commissions and councils, boards of visitors, and many other interested parties in discussions about education. The faculty needs to be as vocal as the most vocal critics of higher education are.
This suggestion, as simple as it sounds, will strike a note of anguish for most faculty members. We, the faculty, already feel pressed to the breaking point. Getting all our work done now is tough enough without adding additional burdens of public relations and politics.
However, if faculty members refuse, for whatever reasons, to participate in the dialogue about the future of higher education, others, perhaps, less well disposed toward the faculty and education will fill the vacuum.
The Faculty Senate at Virginia Tech under the leadership of past presidents Tom Sherman and Paul Metz has ensured that faculty voices are being heard. I think the Faculty Senate at Virginia Tech has done a marvelous job of responding to these changed academic times.
We have formed committees that were geared toward action. With the Faculty Senate of Virginia (under able leadership from Virginia Tech) we have held two public forums on higher education. We have made numerous visits to legislators, newspaper editors and SCHEV leadership. We have written and published editorials on the state of higher education. We have worked with and continue to work with our own administration in improving the quality of education at Virginia Tech. All of these activities by the Virginia Tech Faculty Senate serve to mold and delimit the debate over higher education.
The present Faculty Senate has the responsibility to continue to contribute to this dialogue on higher education. People will listen and incorporate our viewpoints if we speak out. In my year as president of the Faculty Senate, I was continually impressed with the individuals who were swayed by faculty voices once we made ourselves heard.
In my view, the faculty needs to continue to have our views heard by the public and political leadership of the state and the nation. We need to actively work with others who support education by taking a leadership role in identifying the issues and in proposing solutions to the problems in higher education.