At least with regard to higher education in the United States we have lost our way and we are paying a terrible price—in lack of security for faculty, staff, and students. If faculty members are concerned about their safety and the safety of their students and if school administrators ignore signs of abnormal violent behavior on the part of students or staff, then the atmosphere is counter productive and certainly not conducive to learning. One college professor told me that every day she wonders, “Will this be the day a student brings a gun to class and kills us all?”
There is no simple answer to why security has deteriorated on so many of the nation’s campuses—but one of the greatest contributors to this deterioration has been the tendency to see state-funded colleges and universities as businesses rather than institutions of learning. Learning in a safe atmosphere conducive to intellectual pursuits appears to be totally absent from the thinking of this new breed of university and college presidents.
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, (Carolina Academic Press, 1999) 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.
Even worse, some—such as Charles Steger the President of Virginia Tech—are woefully lacking in crisis management skills. Indeed, Virginia Tech’s President is a prime example of the problem we face. Read his biography or listen to his defenders—the repeated emphasis on how much money he has raised for the school drowns out all else. His leadership was absent on April 16, 2007; this lack of leadership may have cost 30 lives. But, he is an outstanding fund-raiser—unfortunately that seems to be what counts in Blacksburg and elsewhere.
The fact of the matter 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 the safety of our children and on behalf of this nation’s future; they are long-term investments we must make to preserve this nation’s greatness.
To run state colleges and universities on a “for profit basis” is not only counter-productive in the long run, but it has cheapened the quality of education and undercut campus security. For example—if you pay for your daughter or son to go to college, under the business model some lawyers argue that you have paid money and established a contract—your child is owed a degree. The result has been a lowering of standards. A friend of mine was an English professor at a major university in the Washington, DC area. She developed an English test that all seniors had to pass to show that thet had a certain degree of facility and understanding of English. So many seniors were flunking that the alumni association was up in arms and the school was forced to do away with the test.
In blindly following the business model we are paying a price in so many ways, and not just 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 English speaking Americans who were 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 consulting 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 wrong decisions will be made based on poor translations—decisions that may cost lives. But, the company’s stock price went up.
To say that this country is in a sorry state of affairs doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the problem. Our values seemed turned upside down; we measure everything including human life, only in terms of dollars and cents. Few recognize that making a profit in higher education is not synonymous with our national interests; making a profit is not synonymous with securing the safety of our children. On the other hand, increasing the size of an institution’s donor base and value of its endowments are high on the priority list. I once read, “to be ruled by ideas for which there is not evidence … is generally a sign that something is seriously wrong.” There is no evidence that turning our colleges and universities into businesses improves the quality of academic training. If fact, the opposite appears to be true. One consequence of turning schools into businesses is that when it comes to making our schools safe it appears that many in positions of responsibility and authority are intent on limiting information in an effort to manipulate public opinion and prevent people from being held accountable for their actions or inactions. That was certainly the case in the shootings at Virginia Tech, which I will detail in detail later. (To be continued)