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A View From Lick Skillet by Gerald Largen

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Much good could come of reform of higher education

Gentle reader, as we enter the autumn season, most educational institutions begin a new academic year.

Although President Obama has initiated efforts to reform our institutions of higher learning from the community colleges to the most prestigious universities, regrettably it is unlikely that the entering freshmen will find his lot substantially improved over that of his older fellows.

Costs continue to escalate at a totally unreasonable rate, and the value of a degree continues to decline.

More and more of the economic middle and lower classes find themselves confronted by an insurmountable financial obstacle.

Only a fortunate few receive scholarships, grants, or other financial aid.

Although there is still a student loan programme, its post-graduation burden is so heavy that many question the wisdom of getting a degree financed by student loans.

Working one’s way, which has had such an ancient and honourable history in this country, is getting less and less possible.

It is self-evident that we as a society, and as a civilized nation, owe an obligation to our young people to provide pathways by which they may get, if not a superior, at least an adequate education.

There are at least four bodies providing or supporting institutions of higher learning, i.e. the churches, private foundations and non-profit corporations, for-profit corporations, and state and local governments.

Of these four classifications, the obvious choice with which to begin reform is the governmental sponsored schools.

The remaining three would have to be reformed by their respective churches, foundations/non-profits, and for-profits, none of which the public can, or should, control.

A good beginning point in any programme of reform of higher education might well be the amount of educational funding expended on gleaming new facilities.

This has been a contested subject for many years.

For instance, James A. Garfield’s famous statement that “A university is a student on one end of a log and Mark Hopkins on the other” was uttered during a speech given at a Williams College alumni dinner on 28 December, 1871, in response to a movement to provide new buildings for the college.

Certainly we must provide basic facilities for the conduct of classes, lectures, seminars, etc., that are essential to a good college education; but the structures being built and money expended go far beyond basic facilities.

Furthermore, all too many colleges and universities have been caught up in the “newness” net.

Some building programmes result from a desire by the present heads of the institutions to have their name appear on a cornerstone, or to be able to enter a new line on their resume of accomplishments, just like some preachers are always pushing for new building projects for basically the same reasons.

In both cases, in our humble opinion, available funds should be used to promote the basic purposes of their respective institutions.

Another aspect of this mistaken use of funds on buildings is the stubborn refusal to recognize that old buildings can sometimes be refurbished, refitted, or restored.

One need only look to Harvard Yard to see examples.

Even more impressive could be all the old buildings designed and built under the watchful eye of Thomas Jefferson some two hundred years ago, as the University of Virginia was established.

Rooms in these buildings are especially sought after we understand.

Even more impressive are the numerous buildings still in daily use in Oxford, some several hundred years old, yet still serving their function in that most prestigious of citadels of learning.

Mentioning Oxford brings us to another even more vital possibility of reform, which is the use of time and resources.

It has long been accepted that Oxford University is one of the foremost institutions of higher learning in the world.

You may be as surprised as we were to learn that the degree of Bachelor of Arts from Oxford University is earned in three years, not the four required in the USA.

Toni Summers Hargis, in her book Rules, Britannia (St Martin’s Press, 2006) in regard to British university education, says: “Most university degrees take three years to complete; according to the official literature, this is because they are more intensive than U.S. degree courses.”

To confirm that this statement covered Oxford as well as other British schools we consulted our Handbook to the University of Oxford, which says: “Candidates for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts, after admission to the University, are required to pass two examinations: The First Public Examination; The Second Public Examination; and to keep nine terms (three academic years) by residence.”

Surely the normal American entrant into college is not so mentally inferior as to be unable to handle course work as intensive as their British contemporaries.

We simply do not require our youngsters to measure up to this higher standard, and instead promote a lower standard of work and accomplishment.

Shouldn’t our standards be as high as anyone’s, especially our fellow sharers in a common heritage like that between the U.K. and the U.S.?

Just imagine the huge difference in the costs not only of acquiring, but also of providing a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four.

Parents could send their offspring to college for 75 percent of the cost they now face.

And states could operate their institutions of higher learning with similar savings, or produce a proportionally higher number of college graduates for the same budgetary allotment.

So, why not do it?

Another aspect of potential reform involves the status of the college teachers.

We should have the most qualified personnel possible teaching our students.

But it must be understood that these fine men and women teaching in state institutions are there for that purpose — to teach.

Emulating the practices of certain private institutions, both lay and religious, faculty members are allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to pursue all manner of activities other than teaching students.

Older readers may recall Lamar Alexander’s tenure as president of the University of Tennessee when he launched his initiative to make our state university a premier “Research University.”

Fortunately his position as head of U.T. didn’t last long enough for his scheme to come to full fruition, but it did seem to end the tradition in this state that any graduate of a Tennessee high school was guaranteed admission to the University of Tennessee.

The graduate was not guaranteed that he or she could stay there, if their performance was not up to the university’s standards for its students, but admission and the chance to perform were guaranteed.

That is not now the case, more’s the pity.

In any event, as we say, professors at state colleges and universities should have as their primary duty and goal the education of the enrollees at the school.

Both the taxpayers and the students have a right to expect nothing less than this from these professionals.