Rethinking the University: Part One, Commencing the Conversation

Note: From a speech given to the College of Arts & Sciences, Lee University, Cleveland, TN, August 12, 2015

When you say “Arts & Sciences” it sounds, word-wise, as it you are actually referring to something, but the truth at our institution is that when you use the term, you are referring more to what the Arts and Sciences are not than what they are. At our university, “Arts & Sciences” means “not Education, not Religion and not Music.” Our 160 full and part-time faculty are divided among a couple dozen disciplines in six departments that are themselves widely cast nets. So, capturing an identity for such a college is difficult to say the least.

Certainly as a loose affiliation of disciplines we do have common cause … in the General Education Core and in the overall mission of the university. But truth be told, the things that bring us together as a distinct entity are not typically any different from those of the rest of the university, so it has always seemed to me that addressing anything specifically to the college would just as easily be addressed to the entire university, and be just as applicable for that scope. That may very well be the case, but as I am dean of this particular college, I feel I have a responsibility to generate some truly meaningful conversations among our people. And that’s what I want to do now.

Cambridge UK
Cambridge, UK

In January of this year I got a chance to get away for the spring semester. I am indebted to President Paul Conn and VPAA Debbie Murray for making my absence possible. I’m also grateful to Dr. Jean Eledge for stepping in on my behalf while I was gone. I spent January to April in Europe with the UK Study Abroad Program. During that time, when I wasn’t teaching or supervising 20 delightful undergrads in Cambridge, I did a lot of free association thinking. I hadn’t had a sabbatical in my 23 years in higher education, so it was a good opportunity for me to take a passive role and benefit from the experience as a whole. I don’t normally have a spontaneous bone in my body, but I grew one in Cambridge, and I soaked in stone, as it were, as I wandered windswept, rainy back alleys steeped in 730 years of educational history.

Upon my return to the States, something struck me pretty clearly. I found a different kind of educational atmosphere greeting me back home. As I read accreditation renewal documents and encountered higher ed news, I came to the sudden realization of something that had been tugging at the base of my brain for some time. Basically, higher education in this country is under threat.

I’m not an alarmist, but for the first time in my career, I found myself facing a certain amount of fear for this thing I do for a living. Part of that fear is that I’m not exactly sure how afraid I should be, but I hear and read all these rumblings that higher education is now a target for wholesale reform. What kind of reform? People in positions of power and influence, people who can seriously affect funding that makes my job possible seem to think that college should be about job training and should be the servant of variable market forces, like the interest rate. College should take about three years and should conclude with job certification. High schools should be able to deliver the first year of college and what the high school offers in this regard should be interchangeably accepted wherever a student chooses to go as if it were part of the meal plan. A college education is referred to as a right, something that should be free. While the sentiment has an undeniable glow to it, everyone of us in higher education knows that somebody somewhere has to pay for all this. “Free” means taxes, not tuition. You can’t pay for college with just lottery dollars. And that speaks to bureaucratic distribution of funds based on systems of merit that reflect narrow interests and priorities.

I am afraid on one hand, but I’m excited and hopeful on the other. I feel strongly that action is called for here, the sort of action that would move us to understand and articulate why what we do is so important. What is it that makes us different as an institution? What is it that makes us the better choice for people who come to college with the hope of creating a foundation for the future? Because college is investment in every sense of the term, right? In its original sense, “investment” meant to put on the vestments, or the robes, of an office. We don’t make undergrads wear robes anymore, except at graduation, but colleges once did (and some still do). The fact is that their new life starts at our doors. Why should they take that bold step here when they have 4725 other schools in this country alone to choose from, many of which are bowing to pressure to make things easier, quicker and more market-responsive?

IonaI think the answer is to be found somewhere in the intersection between hope and fear. On the one hand we have a vision of the University as the descendant of Celtic monasteries where knowledge was saved from the wreckage of civilization and books on vellum parchment were rescued from fire and sword. Perhaps I shouldn’t liken current threats to the Viking pillagers of Iona, but, well, there may be a small parallel between an utterly utilitarian view of education and pitiless raiders interested only in the gilding inside the abbeys they sacked.

Certainly we would be foolish to ignore market pressures entirely. This is America, after all, and the American Dream is alive and well, even though you might have trouble getting two people to agree on what the dream entails. But expanding personal marketability is perceived to be one of the greatest responsibilities of higher education. Do we dare live in denial of these pressures? That would be unwise. But we should at least be informed about how to answer the questions we are already receiving on this issue and to acknowledge that our university is not a pure liberal arts institution. We know we are more of a hybrid, and that’s a good thing.

Given our realities, the answer to our challenge may be boiled down to a single statement, one with big implications that should be teased out much more fully, but here is an attempt to put it succinctly:

The best qualification for work in a complex world is as much about formation of the person as it is about the acquisition of qualifying knowledge and skills.

Carl Gombrich, Dean of Arts & Sciences (BASc) at University College, London, has been writing and speaking about the formation/qualification axis for the past few years. From a recent Gombrich post, “We need to envisage universities as places that are about more than obtaining a paper qualification. Universities are – or should be – principally places of formation. What do we mean by formation? Broadly, it’s what happens when minds are formed, values begin to settle, ideas of purpose in life take root and there is enculturation – the beginning of an integration of students into the culture or environment in which the university is based.”

Training for the next practical step in life and educating for formation need not be mutually exclusive. I quote from Gombrich again: “For the foreseeable future it is extremely hard to imagine any advanced society that will not require managers, leaders, directors, innovators, people who drive corporations, found political movements and charities, act as thought leaders and helmsmen and women of industry and commerce. And if you accept this, turn the argument around and imagine a world run (for it will be largely run) by such people who don’t have a chance of a more complex, intellectually rich formation, a professional class who have not had a chance to explore their own minds, to have exposure to a wide range of thought. A society with no accepted formation for its young people is barely, one might say, a society at all.” I think, unfortunately, that we can already see what Gombrich is warning us about.

Anyone who hears or sees the daily news knows that the world is begging for ethical practitioners in every walk of life, from the foreman of a factory line to the CEO of a financial institution. What it comes down to is what kind of world will greet our graduates.

reddit-logoMost of us in this room are probably unfamiliar with the web-based group of forums known as “reddit,” but most of the students in your classes will have at least heard of it and a few will be regular participants in one or more subforums known as “subreddits.”, which claims to be the front page of the Internet, is the 10th most popular site in the United States outranked only by the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It ranks higher than Netflix. It is the single most visited English-language source of threaded discussion and interchange on the Internet with almost 10,000 different active forums, 170 million unique visitors every month, generating over 7.5 billion page views. Items of interest that emerge on Reddit are eagerly borrowed and passed on to outlets like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and their online British counterpart the Guardian. Thousands of tidbits float up from Reddit every day, from which hundreds of lists and other items make it into the undiscriminating newsfeeds of these other outlets. Some of those “go viral” and burst onto the national scene when captured by CNN, FOXNews and the other primetime outlets. If you watched a viral video today, more often than not it surfaced on Reddit first. The joke by Reddit users is that if you saw it on Facebook, it’s old news on Reddit. You may have heard of Reddit’s famous—or infamous—AMA’s, or “Ask Me Anything” forums in which major public figures and celebrities subject themselves willingly to a barrage of questions from a live audience that can sometimes number in the millions.

But Reddit is actually a private corporation worth an estimated $500 million with stock owned by a strange mix of people. And it just went through a huge international scandal that ended in the toppling of a controversial CEO. A popular public employee was fired for an undisclosed reason. With cries of foul, the online juggernaut that is reddit voluntarily shut down in protest. Millions of users joined the protest and a staggering 200,000 people signed a petition demanding the resignation of the CEO.

You might be asking at this point what possible connection reddit has with higher education? There is no intention here to promote reddit in any way. Even though the most popular forums relate to science, gaming and movies (and actually have passable levels of accountability), there are forums for groups I dare not mention here from hate speech to plain sicko garbage. Volunteers do all the moderating on the forums, so the interaction is at best a mixed bag. In fact, an attempt to clean up some of the garbage led to First Amendment outrage and contributed to the recent removal of the CEO after the uprising of an online mob.

Here’s the connection: reddit may very well represent the increasingly democratic and libertarian future of the Internet, and therefore, in no small measure, a significant part of the world in which our graduates will be living and working. It’s a world that is frequently unaccountable, given to extreme mob reactions, psychological abuse and character assassination for laughs; anyone can broadcast whatever they want at any time of the day or night with little fear of consequence – other than an up or down vote, a gasp or a coarse laugh. It’s like the world of Judges in the Old Testament where “everyone did that which was right in their own eyes.”

I’m not trying to overstate the case. One could readily say it’s not as bad as all that, and they might be strictly correct. Regardless, reddit displays the unblushing world of tarnished ethics and values into which our students are now graduating. There is in the average experience of our students a level of sheer baseness most of us growing up never had to confront. Grossness, by which I mean submission to baser appetites, was something Baby Boomers were at pains to keep locked away. Grossness has become commonplace. Some young students are more flinty and jaded than the most cynical among their instructors. But none of us is immune to constantly cycling horror–one case in point being the recent “auto-play” video posted online by the Roanoke news crew murderer.

This is not to preach hell fire and damnation on the Internet. It can be a wonderful thing and its good uses are almost limitless. But the wild extremes of the Internet highlight the critical point here. How can we imagine that our primary work as educators in this kind of world is to teach students merely how to sort the right widgets in the right boxes? How dare we limit our instruction to technique when the world’s great need is for people who can act with integrity, civility and charity? Yes, we do need people who can perform their jobs well, but in the environment confronting us today we need people who can do their jobs with the kind of grace, truth and professionalism that comes only from a reliable internal compass.

We need people who do not merely reflect their times. We need people who redeem their times. But redemption is hard, sacrificial, patient work done with meekness of spirit, disciplined strength of will, love for one’s neighbor (loveable or not) and courage born of hope that enables one to be a light in the darkness. In case you didn’t recognize them, these are basic moral and spiritual virtues. And we, as a university, are uniquely positioned to help meet this crucial need by planting and cultivating these virtues among our students. Our Core Values, the Integration of Faith and Vocation through ethical action, redemptive service and responsible citizenship are the outward expressions of the very kinds of virtues we hope to cultivate.

Where do we begin? Here’s the good news: The virtues and values we care so much about are not the province of any single discipline or degree. And, after conversations with similarly placed educators in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve come to believe that one of the best ways we can bring these values home to our students is for us to be willing to treat them as the multifaceted gems that they are.

What would such an approach look like? First of all, no discipline at our institution is devoid or divorced from a sense of value, a hierarchy of what is important in life, an idea of what matters and how we should apply these aspects to life. Numbers can teach us about integrity. Medicine can teach us about charity. Counseling can teach us about empathy. Business can teach us the virtues of trust and fairness. Language and the Arts can teach us the power of symbols in bringing ideas to life and in drawing us toward that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.

In drawing our attention on a possible shortcoming, I don’t want to suggest that we are failing to get the job done. I’m very proud to be dean of a college where I know the faculty and staff give so much of themselves. I am aware of the difficulties a lot of our people face every day, many of which are not directly related to the job; they’re just part of this thing we call life. But we come to our classrooms day after day and face the task of imparting something meaningful to these young people no matter what’s going on elsewhere, and so many times they have little or no idea that there’s a bigger life outside the classroom for the person standing at the front of the room. They don’t know about the child that threw up at 2 am last night. They don’t know when we or someone close to us is in great physical pain. They don’t know about the life circumstances that keep us awake at night. That’s because we cover the scrapes on our elbows and leave the anxieties tucked away and somehow find a way to smile at those sleep-deprived faces. These students think their problems are big—and sometimes they really are. But we believe with them and pray with them and encourage them even when our problems are just as big or bigger. It humbles me to be a part of such a family. And on behalf of the thousands who have shuffled in and out of these classrooms with little knowledge of the underlying personal sacrifice, I offer a heartfelt, “Thank you!”

Even with that, I think there’s a way in which we may be selling ourselves short, maybe hiding our candle under a bushel. We are sitting on an incredible treasure but we satisfy ourselves with a few flecks of gold dust in the daily and weekly grind of teaching and grading.

Allow me to ask a question. How can we realistically expect our students to bring these values and virtues and knowledge and skills and vocation—all this stuff—to a fine point of comprehension if we aren’t doing it ourselves? In other words, how can we get our students to link the pieces of this grand puzzle if we are sitting comfortably in our own limited spheres of endeavor with little or no reference to one another? We are expecting our students to synthesize across disciplines when we ourselves practice avoidance of other disciplines. How can we expect our students to carry ideas from one class to the next, making all the key connections, if our ideological culture places little value on this very kind of exchange?

If we value integrative learning enough to see it become reality, then we need to begin integrating ourselves. As this institution has grown, as faculties have enlarged and disciplines have been added, we’ve become a nice archipelago of relatively isolated entities. Yes, we maintain some wonderful friendships across disciplines, but we’ve only ever just touched the surface of what we could do here. We’ve caught glimpses of it from time to time, and we’ve even begun to do some really great stuff in colloquiums, symposiums and other forums. Those efforts are certainly to be commended and supported.

But what I’m getting at is more fundamental. Before we start implementing a possible series of formal structures, what I would like to encourage and facilitate in the next two semesters is conversation: simple friendly interaction. Let me emphasize that while formal structures are a worthy goal, what we need is talk at a basic level. This can be as simple as people across disciplines breaking bread together. Faculty could visit classes from other disciplines. It can be, and maybe needs to be, as simple as grabbing coffee on campus or in town. The hardest part will consist in making time for conversations. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I really do think it will be worth it.

Later, let’s talk about more formal structures–interdisciplinary teaching, guest lectures, summer faculty workshops, etc. But let’s be sure to look at ideas that emerge from conversations rather than doing it the other way around.

Also, I would like for our college meeting sessions to be more truly deliberative. I sense that a lot of people in our midst have some really valid and valuable things to say from which we might all benefit and I would love to give us the chance to voice those things.

My personal hero Phillip Melanchthon, reformer and scholar of the 16th Century, ended his orations with, “I have spoken.” So that’s how I’ll end now. Let’s start talking to each other now.