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What is a university? And what should it to be? | APSCUF
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Since spring 2010, various PASSHE universities have grappled with retrenchment, part of the process of which is to provide the faculty union a list of departments to be evaluated as the administration deals with “changes that could lead to retrenchment” (CBA, Art. 29).  At the same time, the cycle of Middle States accreditation has led to several universities looking at their general education programs and discussing or enacting massive changes.

 Both these reviews, and other trends, force us to reconsider and define: what is a university?  What should it be and what do we expect it to be?

 In the last week, the presidents of both Clarion University and Edinboro University have said of their future university that they need to be responsive to employers and their communities.  They both say it as though it is a given.  Is it?  Should universities be driven, like auto makers and fast-food restaurants, by the demands of external entities, providing the least expensive, tastiest education possible?

 In looking at those lists of departments to be evaluated, it is clear that certain subjects no longer are responsive to the right people.  Theater, music, foreign languages (other than Spanish), philosophy and even English (on two recent lists) seem to be endangered species subject areas among our universities.

 Do you have a university without those?  Or just a place people matriculate, learn their first job’s skill, and move on?  Is that what we are about now?

 Back in the 1850s, John Henry Newman, known as Cardinal Newman, gave a series of lectures he later published as The Idea of the University.  Without going into the details of Newman’s very Victorian, elongated prose, what he argued for was a university that 

 “…I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them…A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”

 Amazingly to us in the 21st century, Newman actually raised money for his university espousing these ideals.

 Which raises the question: has our concept of a university changed so much in the 150 years since Newman published that we want something different, I suggest something less,  from a university than he did?

 Music, theater, languages, philosophy, physics (to start the list of endangered programs) all lead to those habits of mind that last a lifetime.  They promote freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation…and, yes, wisdom.  Who can argue with those attributes?

 The current response to “the market” is not necessarily the best thing for our students, or our Commonwealth.  During the hearings for last year’s Governor’s Commission on Higher Education, then changed to “Post-Secondary Education,” testimony often centered on “we need more welders” (which is probably demonstrably true, but you would think irrelevant to the Commission) and “we don’t have enough job candidates with the ‘soft skills’ like showing up on time or being able to pass a drug test.”  Doubtless Cardinal Newman would think some time spent with subjects that taught the attributes of calmness, moderation and wisdom might help with those “soft skills”, though courses in those subjects were NOT the solution of last summer — a course teaching them was!  (This begs the question of how you directly teach someone to be responsible)

 Let me give you two examples of the fallacy of market-driven university programs.  Let’s start with one outside the PASSHE experience: nuclear engineering.  Penn State runs such a program and in the 90s and early 00s was often discussed as too small and worthy-to-be-eliminated because no one would ever want nuclear power again after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

 Whoops!  A new president, a new set of foreign dynamics, and now that program has hundreds of majors and is in good health.  Would you have it that they had to completely recreate the program?

 The second example is familiar to state system faculty and appears in the Clarion workforce document: criminal justice.  If you’ve never talked with criminal justice faculty, do so, because some I’ve talked to readily chuckle at the mass of students at their door.  I’ve heard it repeated, “They all want to be, and think they are going to be, essentially on CSI.”  Yes, the TV show has driven droves of students to think a subject area that was a tiny thing when it first appeared is glamorous and full of drama.  They think they will be Marg Helgenberger or William Peterson.  They have lots and lots of majors.  And there are lots of jobs in correctional institutions (not exactly CSI stuff) for those graduates, as we keep funding prisons in direct inverse correlation to higher education.

 Clarion’s plan is for a CJ program.  Doubtless, there are hundreds of students wanting CJ.  However, Clarion is behind all of its geographical neighbors in going here.  IUP, less than 2 hours away, has a huge program.  So does Edinboro, only an hour plus away.  Lock Haven, east a bit over an hour, has a program that ranks it one of the most populated on that campus.

 Not exactly a niche.

 If Clarion were to put that kind of enthusiasm into its music education program (which is on its list to cut), what might it do?

 All of this takes us back to the university’s mission and what makes a university.  A university without music, physics, philosophy is a university missing core ingredients in making our graduates wiser (to shorten Newman’s list).  

 Let’s remember that idea of a university as we charge forward, wondering about this week’s job desire, and forgetting the long-term benefits of a full university education.  To forget is to leave the Commonwealth with a completely different — less wise, less moderate, less calm — populace.  Is that what we really want out of our universities?

Steve