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In last week’s Pittsburgh Business Times, Chancellor John Cavanaugh wrote about how the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and our universities will move on despite “losing” more than $90 million of its state appropriation. While  it is understandable that Dr. Cavanaugh wants to put as fine a gloss on the financial difficulties that lie ahead as he can (it is part of his job), it is nonetheless disturbing that his most vocal pronouncement focuses not on the core of what we do, but rather highlights the “bells and whistles” of academia. As so many administrators so often do, Dr. Cavanaugh highlights only marginal programs — that is, those programs with cache, those that are on the edges of our core, for example collaborative distance education programs in Arabic, Chinese, and M.B.A.s. I do not for a moment mean to slight the content of these programs, which clearly meet a societal need. However, the marginal nature of these programs  makes them appear different and creative, while the backbone of what we do, liberal arts education and education degrees (we graduate approximately half the K-12 teachers in the Commonwealth), are left looking relatively lackluster.

Despite the shiny bells and whistles, at bottom there is simply nothing at all wrong with what the majority of us do day to day; we just get up in front of a classroom, open a book (or web page), and talk to students as human beings. This is the core of what made American higher education the envy of the world, and experience dictates that it is the best way for students to learn how to write, to solve problems, to think critically, and, in short, to become “educated” adults.

We do this, of course, with the help of technology. A much repeated anecdote at the Capitol in Harrisburg is that a legislator complained about how we were still back in the “dark ages,” to which a faculty member responded, “come sit in on my class.” To the legislator’s credit, he did. He was amazed to see the professor “scribbling” on a Smart Board, projecting web pages, and incorporating other media to enhance his points. He also was treated to an education in other technologies, like tickers and laptops in classroom.

Again, don’t get me wrong; there is a role for distance education and collaborative programs. However,  the essence of what we provide our 120,000+ students makes the Cheers theme resonate: “everybody knows your name.” The evidence that this is what students still desire can be found in the fact that admissions personnel regularly pitch this to potential students when they visit campuses. This is what we provide, day after day, year after year, and we do it with excellence. Furthermore, the result continues to be one success story after another success story.

Thus, while everyone likes shiny objects, I hope that our administrative leaders are just as comfortable talking about the engine that powers our universities. After all, it is not the collaborative programs via distance education that make us the Commonwealth’s best option for an affordable quality higher education; it continues to be what we have been doing every day for years.  The question remains: what damage will be done to this engine given our current budgetary distress?

— Steve