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Metz Addresses Higher-Education Issues

By Paul Metz

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 13 - November 20, 1997

I am so glad and grateful that the senate has such strong leadership as Skip Fuhrman, Sigrid Gustafson, and Kerry Redican, as well as our working group leaders, are giving us. If we, especially the four of us on the Faculty Senate of Virginia, can keep working to bring faculty members around the state to the level of consciousness and action Tech has achieved we'll be in a great shape.
Everyone should have the opportunity to serve as president of the Faculty Senate for a year. It's a unique education. Possibly the most valuable lesson is simply to marvel at the breadth and depth of talent in this university. I came away from the year with the greatest admiration not only for Paul Torgersen and the other senior players in Burruss Hall, but for many others among the vice presidents and deans. I came to see how dedicated and knowledgeable, how incredibly hard working, and how full of good feeling and positive goals our faculty members are. It was a source of personal inspiration to try to hit the same standard.
There is certainly a great deal to be proud of. There is of course also a great deal to worry about. Our slippage to 43rd in state support for higher education has to top that list. The governor's attempt to abandon his own State Council's recommendation in only the second of a four-year effort to restore salaries is symptomatic of how difficult it is to obtain the necessary support for higher education, even in booming economic times. Micromanagement from Richmond is another worry. So is the concern that important voices sponsor what has been called the "lifeboat" approach to determining what small part of the population should be extended the opportunity that for the GI Bill generation was so much more democratically available.
We live in a time in which nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted. Every assumption we have seems suddenly to be subject to debate. The questions of how large a fraction of our population should attend college, of whether higher education is vocational or serves a broader purpose, of whether to communicate to students principal identity as members of an unbroken tradition of western culture or whether to help them primarily recognize themselves as members of a diverse world of peoples with disparate traditions, all of these things we thought we knew we now find that we examine again and again.
One of the great lessons I have learned in life is that when you feel the sensation of anomie, or utter normlessness, it is time to restate what you know. Generally you will find, upon reflection, that your moral compass still has a reliable North, and that in fact everything you know is not wrong. What I would like to do tonight is to step way, way back from the controversies of the moment and review the world of higher education as it affects us here at Tech. I would like to review and share with you my mental map of this world, and to do so by asking one simple question: "Who are the players and what are their proper roles?"
The first is the role of the student. The student comes to learn, to interact with others in an adult community which is diverse, stimulating, and somewhat sheltered, and to grow. The student comes not as tabula rasa, but also not as a fully formed individual. The student is a customer in one sense--in the sense that we give her credit for knowing a great deal about her needs, and for being able to make intelligent choices, in the sense that we recognize our own interest is somewhat dependent on her satisfaction, and in the sense that we want her experience to be inherently enjoyable. But in another sense, the student is not a customer, but a client. In the literature of the professions, the defining characteristic of a profession as opposed to a purely commercial service is that the professional has, on the basis of specialized expertise, an ability to evaluate what is best for the client and to provide that service. Even in the undisputed professions of medicine and law this model has come under some strain in response to arrogance and abuse, and certainly no professional should claim an absolute monopoly of wisdom over against the judgment of the client. But universities which cede to their students the exclusive or even the predominant right to choose what is best, which tailor their programs by popular trend, and which set their standards based on what students can already do, accelerate their own demise into irrelevance.
A recent New Yorker article's description of "Drive Thru U," where the student's immediate vocational needs drive the curriculum and the fastest possible accumulation of credits is the over-riding goal, paints a sobering picture of the nightmare which is the logical outcome of a complete subscription to the view of student as customer. To see the student as "customer" and "not customer" at the same time is to find the necessary mid-ground between pandering and arrogance.
Now let's talk about the faculty. The division of faculty work into teaching, research, and service is somewhat shopworn, and it creates artificial distinctions which mask from the public the complete interpenetration of research and teaching which takes place in graduate education, or the fusion of research and service which characterizes the best experiment stations, but let's stay with it because it's familiar and useful.
First, teaching should be our passion. Teaching is the defining function of the university. No one who isn't fairly good at it and who doesn't desire to get better should be teaching our students. It's very unfortunate that the public doesn't realize the commitment our faculty members have to teaching. Right now we are spending a great deal of time, time which must be recognized and rewarded, in figuring out how to exploit the fabulous technologies around us to do better teaching. We are somewhat blinded, I think, by a false dichotomy that treats advanced technology as the way you teach people 100 miles away, when in fact some of the best innovations we are seeing are from people who have figured out how to use technology where it's appropriate to teach the students they see every day.
If teaching is what defines us a university, research is what defines us a special university. It's the seed corn. It's hypocritical and blind to argue that faculty members are out of touch because they are mesmerized by their research, as if research somehow made one irrelevant. The exact opposite is true. Doctors and accountants go to professional workshops and courses, often in Hawaii at the taxpayer's partial expense, to keep up their professional skills. Faculty members do research. To ask faculty members to do less research so that they can focus completely on teaching and service is as if some citified consultant were to ask farmers to skip all that unproductive stuff they do in the spring and focus only on the harvest. Our research excellence is the reason that students from all around the world compete to enter American universities.
Service is the third leg of the stool, the one that we have quite properly been trying to give more emphasis in recent years. It's legitimate to expect universities to serve the communities that support them. This doesn't mean wide-scale free consulting. It doesn't mean short-run solutions to the problem of the moment. It is legitimate to expect some economic return. But let's be clear. Economic development is not the highest calling of a university. Certainly not in the world's most developed economy, but really not anywhere. And to the degree we do recognize economic development as a legitimate and important goal, let's remember that in a future economy in which the average well-educated worker is expected to change careers five or six times, there is no better service we can provide the economic engine than to provide it with young people with energetic and curious minds, technologically literate, with strong communications skills, a solid foundation in the basic paradigms and understandings of their disciplines, and a desire to continue learning all their lives. And there's no better booster shot for that person 20 years out than a catch-up course taught by outstanding faculty members. Let's not forget, either, that a single patentable innovation can do more for the economy than a hundred workshops.
So far I have described the faculty member as an isolated worker bee. He or she teaches, does research, serves the department and the larger community, then goes home. Nobody mentioned what you are doing tonight, which is participating in shared governance.
I think we all agree that the first job of every single member of the faculty is to perform as well as possible in teaching, research, and service. We still live in a word-of-mouth world, and nothing does the institution more good than a satisfied alumnus. But I think we are all also very aware that faculty members have unique insights and resources that it would be simply tragic not to use in the charting of institutional directions. Faculty entrepreneurship accounts for much of what is unique and strong in each institution. Virginia Tech doesn't have remarkable strengths in materials or in wireless communications because of administrative decisions to stake out those areas, but because of faculty initiative in research and grantsmanship.
We don't have a remarkable philosophy department because someone decided that would be a nice sort of contrarian investment for Virginia Tech to make.
In his stimulating book The Academic Tribes, Hazard Adams cites the antimony, which he describes as two apparently contradictory statements that are true and useful as a pair, though either statement alone is wrong and dangerous, that "The faculty members are the university," and also that "The faculty members are employees of the university." You might say my approach to the student role as both customer and client is a similar antimony. I think Adams is right that we have to embrace the complexity of his dual statements describe. We must be active and vocal, not only within the academy but more and more, with the outside world that so often misunderstands what we do. We have to listen. We have to be flexible. We can't be defensive about things like post-tenure review, which we have shown can be properly handled and which gives not only society but us faculty members ourselves protection against the rare instance of chronic incompetence or indifference. We have to participate in planning for the overall institution. It's irresponsible to consider this the administration's problem when it's time to do the work and then to complain about the results. And we must, above all, get our light out from under a bushel and make sure that the general public and the relevant authorities recognize the significance of what we do.
In Virginia, we as faculty members will have a difficult time being heard. We neither make lethal weapons nor attempt to sell them. We neither produce nor try to sell tobacco. Nothing we do threatens Virginia's rivers or her atmosphere. Somehow we must overcome these liabilities and gain the same degree of access to and sympathy from the executive branch as those whose work does have these effects. Or at least we must reach out for understanding to the public at large, and to the General Assembly.
There is no more serious issue facing us right now than the need collectively to get out the word about who faculty members are, how we spend our time, how much we care about students, what we contribute, and what will happen if resources continue their downward spiral. Every one of us in this room needs to accept that our mission and work is badly understood and suffers from stereotypes nurtured by those who would continue to balance the state budget on the back of higher education. We absolutely must work simultaneously to change public perceptions and to reach out directly to the General Assembly. To be inactive at this point is to be passive collaborators in our own demise.
The administrative job is easier to describe, though infinitely difficult to perform. It is to run the support activities of the shop, to work with parents, alumni, donors, and granting agencies to secure resources for the institution, and to provide vision and direction for the long run. Critical in this is the ability to monitor the external environment so as to anticipate societal needs, technological changes, and threats and opportunities presented by other organizations and institutions.
The world we are moving into now requires great flexibility and fast response. While it's important to look at long-run predictive data such as demographic trends, in the main it's idle to talk about long-run planning. The Internet and a global economy have changed everything so dramatically that we already would hardly recognize the Virginia Tech of 1990. Meanwhile a runaway stock market and a booming economy surprised us, and there is no saying that equal, if less-pleasant surprises, might not await us. The job of the administration is to somehow to see the larger patterns that underlie all this buzz and to be able to move resources quickly. We have to figure out and stake out our unique role in web-based instruction as this evolves. Rapid response will be the order of the day. Our job as faculty members will be to innovate, to create pilot programs, and to suggest programmatic and strategic directions.
Of course we expect a strong voice in decision-making, but we will also have to understand that time for deliberation and process will be truncated, that decisions will have to be made quickly, and that if we want to be part of the action, we will have to participate early and actively and then be prepared to move quickly into our role in the implementation phase. We must in particular organize ourselves to reach closure on issues and to speak coherently. Nothing undermines our own role in governance more than the perception that faculty members are incapable of giving a final signoff to anything.
The final actor I want to discuss is the external community as it is formally represented by boards of visitors and the State Council on Higher Education. I came away from my presidential experience with the same feeling that Tom Sherman reported to you last year--we are extraordinarily lucky to have a board as dedicated, talented, and willing to give of their time and energy as the board we have. We are all in their debt. I do worry very much about the politicization of these appointments and now the increasing politicization of board training, but so far at least we at Tech have not been harmed by these trends.
The board and SCHEV have indispensable roles to play. No institution can be accountable to itself, and we depend on them to give us frequent reality checks about the needs and perceptions of the wider society we serve. The board has a fundamental understanding of the needs of employers, and a great deal of wisdom about the running of a business enterprise. Their expertise in these areas is highly valued. SCHEV has a unique view of where each institution fits into a larger picture, of how duplication can be minimized, of how the state as a whole can build to its existing strengths, and of how to coordinate the common backbones that will underpin distributed education. It must play this role actively, though I hope, apolitically.
Just as there are logical limits to the roles of students, faculty members, and administrators, there are some inherent limitations in the role of these external groups. It is useful, I think, to remind ourselves that the state provides one-third of our revenue. He who pays a third of the piper's fee does not ordinarily expect to script the entire musical program. It is also useful to bear in mind that, indispensable as they are, external control agencies are only one of the three means of external checking and balancing to which the university is subject. The other two are accreditation and the valuable coaching that comes with it, less at the institutional than at the department level, and secondly the demands and expectations of the student marketplace. The best external review is achieved when a balance is maintained among the influence of formally constituted boards, our external academic peers, and the marketplace.
Students, faculty members, administrators, and external boards--each of us has an indispensable role to play. What we share is a priceless inheritance from our forebears, the finest system of higher education the world has ever seen. We put all this at risk if we pretend that the world has not changed radically, that new technologies and economic realities have not transformed our challenges and opportunities. My point tonight is that we put it all at equal risk if we neglect the truths, the roles, and the structures that have gotten us all this far.