Two Worlds

There are multiple views of the university and its purpose.

Uncle Johnny remembers fraternity parties, the “gentleman’s C” and leisurely student life as the be-all and end-all. Aunt Susie reminisces of working 40 or 50 hours a week on top of a full course schedule to make ends meet. Mom or dad recollect free tuition, or as near free as makes no difference. Dr. Smith encouraged students to take extra courses in mathematics, philosophy, history or religion because he thought these things were important in broadening student perspective. Professor Jones reflects passionately on prodding students to travel for the sheer joy and enlightenment of it.

Those that look ahead envision different realities of a college degree. Betsy DeVos, like her views or not, opined during her confirmation hearings, “for too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life.” Honesty with students and families would suggest it is one way to a better life, but only one. She continued, “this is an addiction… we need to embrace new pathways of learning.” Many believe colleges should do a better job of helping graduates find work  According to a New America study, 70% of future college goers are concerned about starting salaries, and 91% say the primary reason to go to college is to “improve my employment opportunities.”

Richard Vetter, adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, identifies seven challenges facing higher education. Among these are increasing costs, burgeoning federal financial aid and alternative means to “certify vocational competence.” The idea that college is a place to gain different viewpoints and widen perspective is shifting to a monolithic understanding of the world. Decreasing economic growth to support colleges and increasing demand driven by the ingestion of “everybody-needs-a-degree Kool-Aid” also contribute to disenchantment. Additionally, the steadfast assurance that an education provides wisdom, insight, intellectual discipline and a number of other admirable characteristics is oftentimes hollow. Frequent amoral pursuits of fame, often evidenced in intercollegiate athletics or institutional cash flow through unholy business relationships, require attention. Neglected, these are a sickness in higher education —a disease. This forward-looking view is especially troubling to universities that appeal to a wide audience without a clear vision other than bigger is better.

Insiders, university leadership and faculty want to hold on to a 20th-century view of universities in a 21st-century world. Outsiders want the value and application of a college degree to respond to a contemporary notion as certification without personal commitment.

I share many of these views from both perspectives and long for the days when anyone who wanted to go to college could afford to — even if it took working foolishly hard to pay the tab to achieve a degree that had market value. I also had the experience of studying at different institutions, and each broadened my perspective of the world. Transferring from a two-year school on Long Island to Texas A&M University in College Station was a cultural experience in and of itself. This experience changed my life, at a cost I could afford without a single loan — all counted as joy for a kid coming from a working-class family with five siblings. This is not for a split second a lament; it is rather a refresher course in US history as a baby boomer, the realization of both a windshield and rearview-mirror reality.

The reconciliation of these points of view is only possible with clear-headedness. We must tell students that some individual courses of action are likely paths to discouragement. Hiding heads in sand creates disdain for the educational-financial-political framework that created the leviathan labyrinth leading nowhere for too many. According to a Macalester University study, parents and students seek clarity on issues of transition, academic engagement, college life, relationships and home and family. An Owlcation post confirms these and other concerns of students.

An honest assessment of these two worldviews is essential from the wheelhouse of outsider and insider. Reflection, study and sincerity are particularly important for students who hail from small rural communities according to Inside Higher Education, and for those wanting to work out their faith, even in Christian institutions, according to the Christian Post.

These confounding worldviews of fond memories on the one hand and cynicism on the other are serious challenges for all. It is a bleak, but not hopeless picture, according to Catherine Bond Hill. Costs are crippling too many families, she says, and concerns regarding political correctness, academic freedom and other burning issues on campus seem frivolous or contrived for their one-sidedness. Lastly, lifetime earnings do in fact increase, whether one studies literature or computer science. Both worlds are in play if able and committed students under the tutelage of dedicated faculty shoulder rigor, discipline, hard work, and intellectual demands.

This is how universities work.

No Two Alike – Purpose, Population and Place

One of the challenges for students and parents trying to select a place of study is that no two postsecondary institutions are the same. If for no other reason, the laws of physics assert that two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time (my paraphrase of Newtonian physics). Unquestionably, one of the primary objectives of college and university leadership, faculty, staff, students and parents is to understand the distinctives of purpose, population, and place.

The Carnegie Classification System for post-secondary institutions makes a noble effort to clarify these distinctions to all who come calling. The problem is in the overwhelming number of institutional types. Including four-year, two-year, and special-focus institutions, there are 33 distinct types. While this periodic table of colleges may be necessary for educational leaders and faculty, it is befuddling to parents and students who would like to understand a good fit for study. In addition, even faculty and administrators fall into the trap of glossing over unique characteristics that are important in understanding purpose, population, and place for educational service.

In 1960, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, gave birth to “A Master Plan for Higher Education in California”. The vision follows the principle that different universities serve different people in different places:

The basic issue in the development of the Master Plan for Higher Education in California is the future role of the junior colleges, state colleges, and the University of California in the state’s tripartite system and how the three segments should be governed and coordinated so that unnecessary duplication will be avoided.

This model of university structure and governance is emulated in states around the nation and nations around the world.

As universities increasingly feel the pull and push of political forces, rationality in operational distinctiveness of purpose, population and place may fade.

Erosion of mission clarity is at work in California where Kerr’s ideas came to life. California universities are wrestling. The University of California, with its ten campuses, created to be the research and scientific beacon of California, is being challenged by the 23 California State University campuses. Originally chartered to carry students through a master’s degree, some CSU campuses now compete for Ph.D. programs. In addition, California Community Colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in workforce areas that are in demand in the state.

This blurring of mission, a.k.a. purpose, will undermine quality in educational opportunity, satisfaction to students and faculty, and eventually undermine institutional effectiveness for state and citizen alike.

One of the cogs in this machine of rationality are the various state higher education coordinating boards, well-articulated by Paul E. Lingenfelter, national expert on  education and public policy. Those boards should exist beyond politics, although in almost every state they are appointed by the governor. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is one such example. Reduced duplication, increased efficiencies, the division and location of various degree programs to satisfy state need and citizen aspiration are important and legitimate aspirations. A deliberate and systemic effort of thought and action that recognizes political influence and state funding guided by statewide effectiveness in utilization of tax dollars is a tall order. The question to answer is this: Does this institution and/or this program, in this place, with the people who serve and are served by it, perform a useful function in the constellation of state offerings?

A perplexing aspect in this range of considerations is that’ in spite of the 33 Carnegie Higher Education Classifications’ there appears to be one model in the minds of many citizens about what an effective postsecondary institution looks like. This is a harmful condition. The model for universities is typically the state flagship and/or land-grant institution. Additionally, elite private institutions influence ideas about what a university should be, as well as who and how it should serve.

Ultimately, effective institutions of higher education — from trade schools to elite private universities, serve best when they recognize and serve their mission.

For example, two-year colleges were called junior colleges for many years. Labeling terminology shifted to community college and then simply “college.” The oldest community college in America, Joliet Junior College in Illinois, opened in 1901 with six students. Established in partnership with the University of Chicago, it has steadfastly held on to name and purpose with pride even though their mission has changed over time to add technical skills training to the original purpose of academic preparedness for transfer to the University of Chicago. Any action, by design or default, that confuses the community college mission of preparedness and workforce education steps outside of stated purpose.

In all cases the institution must recognize and respond to its mission and the people it serves in the place it calls home.

Purpose. Population. Place.

Serving Students First

For universities job one is serving students one at a time, but they are not customers.  Patients maybe, clients perhaps, hopefully subscribers, but there is no fixed product or performance guarantee. Only hope, and servicing hope requires several basic understandings.

Expectation — Institutions should define reasonable expectations and marks of preparedness for prospective students. If a university “takes all comers,” it may diminish standards of performance in order to appeal to, serve a larger audience, and collect more fees. On the other hand, inflated entry requirements may represent “belonging” akin to a country club membership, rather than an educational experience.

Preparedness — Students with different preparation and life experiences must be treated in different ways. A community college transfer student should receive differently tailored attention than an 18-year-old freshman coming directly from high school. Increasingly, students come with dual-enrollment credits, college courses taken in high school. Many of these students enter the junior year of college directly, with an associate’s degree in their back pocket, but no “campus experience.” The 35-year-old working parent, single or married, requires yet another kind of treatment. Universities traditionally catered to one kind of student. Background, preparation, expectations were monolithic. No longer. Hiding from these realities causes an institution to falter.

Cost — Communicating accurate costs of study is essential. Apart from tuition and fees, the costs of living, food and textbooks are all markedly increasing. Effective service requires transparency. The honest impact of debt burdens on employment opportunities, home and automobile purchases, and other aspirations for most Americans must enter the calculation of consideration. Serving students by helping them understand the lifetime impact of over-borrowing is not optional; it is part of our job.

Challenges Good universities will be intellectually challenging, knitting together required courses in the humanities, the arts, government, mathematics, and science, requiring critical thinking on the part of the student relative to their chosen vocation. Such coursework should help guide career choice, not simply be a get-it-out-of-the-way experience for students. At student orientations 40 years ago it was common to hear someone from the front of the room say, “Look to the left and look to the right…one of those people will not be here in four years.”  While that perspective represents an unproductive “weed out culture,” it is undeniably true that many who start will not finish. Some fall by the wayside because of a lack of interest and others because they cannot meet the challenges and rigor of a good educational process.

High performance standards and “scaffolding” or support should be married to create genuine benefit. Grade inflation, and it is prevalent, might lead to higher graduation rates and more “satisfied customers,” but is fundamentally a disservice feeding an entitlement mindset. Furthermore, the marketplace will unremittingly tell the truth. Lying to students about their ability or performance is seed corn for a life of disappointment. Passion and energy allow people to meet challenges.

Compassion Universities should indicate an interest in seeing students complete degrees in a timely fashion. The number of graduates surely measures university performance, but that is not enough. Students must graduate with vocational abilities and marketable skills so that they can find a job. No matter how much someone talks about the love of wisdom — the root of the word philosophy, that talk is hollow if students leave without job skills.  Confounding the picture — universities don’t serve well if job training is all they do.

Idiosyncrasies Benefit accrues when faculty and staff pay attention to each student individually. Large classes make it difficult for faculty to know students. Students in classrooms that resemble feedlots are not typically well served. A culture that places some of the most experienced faculty in front of the least experienced students in small groups serves both well. Each learns from the other.

Regional Responsiveness The best institutions serve local folks first. A desire for international or out-of-state students that steps over the local population may be well intended — the books might balance on the backs of these higher paying students, but it is misplaced. All education is local. One of WTAMU’s most successful online programs, the MBA, enrolls students from across the nation and world. Multiple ranking systems consistently place it in the top decile of similar programs. Faculty are required to teach on campus if they teach online. In addition, online faculty reside in this region. The values of the people of the Panhandle nourish the educational values of WTAMU.

Expectations, preparation, costs, challenges, compassion, individualized attention, and regional responsiveness are all earmarks of service to students. Good universities serve students with and through these understandings.

Treasure Trust, Transparency and Truth

Universities have lost the public trust. Pew, Gallop, and a number of other assemblers of public opinion have studied and reported findings that suggest public trust in Higher Education is eroding. University of Oregon president Michael Schill in a University World News post proposed several causes of evaporating trust.  Anti-intellectualism, a lack of diversity, indoctrination, erosion of shared or common interests by increasingly loud and narrowly focused interest groups and a host of other legitimate reasons rob institutional trust.

Universities do not have the market cornered on institutional distrust. Forty percent of Americans queried by Gallup in 1973 said they trusted institutions. By 1979 it had climbed to 51%, and then over the years has descended to a rate of about 20%. Congress led the slide with a rate of between 10 and 15%, depending on who you believe. Newspapers chased elected officials into the “trust” basement according to Forbes. While universities are not on the study list, public schools don’t fare very well either. The military is the most trusted institution in the United States, and interestingly, small businesses are second in the registry of esteem.

Government generally is not trusted.  In a Boston Globe reflection, former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers provides insight for the foundation of Americans’ lack of trust in government. He uses an example of the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River in Cambridge. It took less than a year to build at a price tag of about $600,000 and is now is requiring repairs that will take five years with a price tag of over $25,000,000. Summers includes commentary on “a gaggle of regulators and veto players each with the power to block or delay,” representing various groups. The point is this: How can any organization be trusted when it cost so much and takes so long to fix a 232-foot span – less than a long punt on Sunday afternoon?

Even if you like big government, you must ask, “Do such actions and results create trust?” Of course, they do not. Trust has left the building, and good feelings, positive thoughts, and rhetoric don’t change that fact.  Actions do.

Universities must be truthful and transparent in decision-making and execution. If institutional rhetoric proclaims that everyone deserves a fair chance because without it Jefferson’s “unnatural aristocracy” rules, I agree. However, admitting students not ready to study because they come with a pocket full of loan dollars on the basis of giving them a chance is neither transparent, nor trustworthy. It is misleading and a form of lying and cheating. Yes, universities need to make opportunity available; however, relentlessly communicating costs and benefits is required.  This is particularly so for those who are the first in their family to attend college, for they may believe that any study path leads to a bright future.

Sarah Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy at Temple University says, “We’re worth it, debt is worth it, taking a loan to come here is very much worth it,” when in fact the truth may lie elsewhere. What is disarmingly difficult is that leadership of universities believe this “nearly-the-truth” mantra regarding the value of a university education. A good education has great value even in fields where employment potential may be low, but, to declare all courses of study as equally valuable is not transparent.

At West Texas A&M University, while debt levels for all of our graduates over the past decade have been fairly constant on a college-by-college basis, starting salaries vary by 100%. Students graduating in engineering and computer science secured salaries at above $75,000 per year. In some fields starting salaries were half that, but again, debt levels were about the same. Transparency would dictate that we make students and families aware of these differentials. For the 30% of students at WT that don’t have to borrow, these cautions and realities may be of lesser consequence, but I don’t think so.

Accrediting agencies, on a road paved with good intentions, never address the value of a degree. State coordinating boards, in my experience, have only recently suggested that there should be a relationship between borrowing for an education and the ultimate, anticipated employment value of the course of study. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, for example, suggests that a student should accrue no more debt in securing an education than 60% of the first-year anticipated starting salary. If a student anticipates an annual starting salary of $50,000, they should not borrow more than $30,000.

West Texas A&M University initiated a program called Buff$mart that helps students assess reasonable borrowing levels based on their chosen course of study.  While it is too early to judge effectiveness, encouragingly over 2,000 individual student contacts have resulted.

For organizations that trade in trust, transparency and truthfulness are the only things that matter. Good universities will address the trust deficit head on.

The Creative Economy, the University and Human Spirit

The principles laid out in Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (commonly referred to as simply “The Wealth of Nations”) provide valuable insights regarding public universities. While useful in any university setting, they are particularly sensible when fitting a regional university into a strong cultural context, such as the one associated with West Texas A&M University and the Texas Panhandle. Some ideas and thoughts follow from a talk delivered in Seoul, South Korea on December 10, 2014.

The creative economy, the creative class and the role of the university in helping to generate and implement powerful economies are well intended, and many powerful ideas can be traced back to principles articulated by Adam Smith. The simplicity of this pronouncement is disarming, but does not diminish its truthfulness. Principles articulated by Smith are coincident with the current concepts behind creative economies, particularly as they relate to regional universities. Each of the principles has policy implications, and I believe that every program at an energized university—from the most practically minded studies to theoretical excursions into theology, literature or mathematics—will ultimately be judged by “the market.”

Effective universities teach critical thinking and problem solving skills along with the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.

All else at institutions of higher learning is luxuriously unnecessary. Florida and others, in the important study, The University and the Creative Economy, address the three T’s of economic development: technology, talent and tolerance. These are interesting observations to be sure, and all are necessary to promote economic activity; however, two legs of the triangle—talent and tolerance—do not in and of themselves flow from the process of creating something or the art of invention. Smith, on the other hand, in a harsh phrasing and brutally honest appraisal of the issue, clarifies the nucleus of all successful opportunity:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
Adam Smith

Inventive production of anything offered in a marketplace will eventually allow value, and possibly demand the assignment of value to every human act of work. Whether creating a sermon or a theory of physics, producing a bushel of corn or a cow, writing a newspaper story or a novel, cooking a hamburger or a steak—every act of creation requires insight and action. Mindlessness in the repetitive production of anything weakens economic development rather than strengthens it. Even in seemingly repetitive tasks, an enlightened approach allows a constant assessment of approach and worth of execution that creates differences in value outcomes.

The apparently simple and mundane act of digging a ditch is not the same when executed by a novice or by a professional. In the first case, a hole in the ground appears. In the second case, a work of Euclidian precision is the result of thoughtful application of experience and skill.

This is true in every nation and is blatantly so in too many regions of our nation where industriousness and willingness to work hard have been overpowered by a lack of appreciation for the simple adage penned by Philip Stanhope to his son in 1746, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” Certain kinds of work may appear menial for the characteristic of being repetitive, not by the task but by the attitude of those who execute it and, more importantly, by those who passively and ignorantly observe it.

Invention, more than any aspect of human capacity, is central to anything of value and occurs when an act of work is valued. Invention is the core of healthy, self-sustaining economies. Universities must encourage, recognize and reward invention in faculty, students and staff. More than any single component of economic development, invention builds a foundation for prosperity and growth.

Good universities focus on primary mission—academic excellence, and policy should elevate original ideas and insights as the highest ideal to attain, even in technically driven courses of study. The art of doing things well is an act of invention. Invention, guided by a framework of moral propriety, is the seed corn of a free society. The university bears the responsibility of finding in every task of study, every act of learning and every pronouncement of purpose a means to create individuality and inspiration, leading to the attainment of aspirations for every student.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at