Saturday, April 17, 2010


Somewhere along the way, higher education in the United States lost its way and we are paying a terrible price in the loss of faculty, staff, and student lives. If faculty members are concerned about their safety and that of their students, and if school administrators ignore signs of abnormal violent behavior on the part of students or staff, then the atmosphere is not conducive to learning, and that is deplorable. One college professor told me that every day she wonders whether this will be the day a student brings a gun to class and kills them all.

There is no simple answer to why this sorry state of affairs exists, but one of the greatest contributors has been the tendency by politicians and the electorate to see state-funded colleges and universities as businesses rather than institutions of learning. That change in attitude brought in school leaders whose primary qualification is their ability to make money. Many have little or no background in education, much less what it takes to ensure a safe learning environment.

Professor Lucinda Roy points to this problem in her first-hand account of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, No Right to Remain Silent. She wrote: “… Nowadays, some of those in leadership positions at universities have little experience working with students and almost no experience in the classroom. It has become more important to hire administrators who know how to raise money than it is to hire those who know much about students.” She further asserts, “If you examine a typical state-funded university, you will find that many of its resources are dedicated to generating funds. As the public began to opt out of subsidizing public education in the past two decades, something had to fill the gap. A university that is focused on staying afloat cannot pay as much attention to students as it did in the past.”

Robert Bickel and Peter Lake, in their exhaustive and thorough look at risk and responsibility on college campuses, The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University, point out that “by far, this (the business model) is the dominant current conception of modern relations, if one aggregates the cases.” The net result is that most college presidents today are “glad-handers” and fund-raisers, not educators, and certainly not willing to allocate funds for security.

Even worse, some are woefully lacking in crisis management skills, and Virginia Tech President Charles Steger is a case in point. If you read his biography or listen to his defenders, there is a repeated emphasis on how much money he has raised for the school but few references to leadership, which was tragically absent on April 16, 2007, as he prepared for one of the school’s largest fund-raisers; his poor decisions that day contributed to the loss of 30 lives at Norris Hall. But he is an outstanding fund-raiser, and fund-raising, unfortunately, seems to be what counts in Blacksburg and throughout Virginia.

The fact is that in order to make our colleges and universities safer, we will have to spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on such things as security training and equipment, and mental health programs. These expenditures cannot be tallied on a profit sheet. They are expenses on behalf of our nation’s future, and long-term investments we must make in order to preserve this nation’s greatness.

To run colleges and universities on a “for-profit basis” is not only counter-productive in the long run, but it also cheapens the quality of education. Under the business model, if you pay for your daughter or son to go to college, some lawyers would argue that you have paid money and established a contract, and that your child is owed a degree. Not everyone who goes to college should be there, however, and not everyone who enrolls in higher education deserves to get a degree. The result is a lowering of standards. By way of example, a friend of mine who was an English professor at a major university in the Washington, DC, area developed an English test that all seniors had to pass in order to get their degrees. So many seniors were flunking that the alumni association was up in arms and the school was forced to do away with test.

I suspect that what happened to my friend has happened elsewhere. A few years ago I was asked to teach 140 intelligence officers, a major component of the U.S. intelligence community. At the end of the training I was asked by senior management to evaluate the quality of their officers. I concluded that approximately 43% of their people I worked with were sub-standard in the use of basic English. An English sentence was an alien concept for many of them.

In blindly following the business model we are paying a price in so many ways, not just in campus security and the quality of education, but in our nation’s security. I witnessed the latter a short time ago. I was working with non-native speaking Americans who are doing translations for our fighting men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my classes I give these students a laminated translation aid on rules dealing with some of the problem areas of English—areas critical to their work. The laminated study aid costs $4.95. The CEO of the multi-billion dollar company I was working for wanted to cut non-essential costs to help raise the stock price, so he cut the study aid. I guarantee you that decisions will be made based on poor translations—decisions that may cost lives. But, the company’s stock price will probably go up.

Under the business model, whether it is our students or our fighting men and women, lives seem to be expendable as long as a profit is made. This is morally reprehensible. To say that this country is in a sorry state doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem.

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