Our Universities: Habit, Tradition, Culture

Traditions, good and bad, are difficult to dislodge once in place. Change in universities occurs at glacial velocity. The nature of a university, like the character of a community, is determined, in large part, by its traditions and habits.

“All lasting change is incremental, based on unfolding traditions and developing institutions. Revolutionary upheavals may change how the world looks but seldom change the way the world works. Lasting historical change comes not through tidal waves but through the irresistible creeping tide.”

Richard Nixon


All universities have traditions. Traditions are an institutional version of habits, but with a particular feature. Traditions are habits that carry meanings that are shared by the members of the institutional community.

Stephen R. Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, addressed the way habits lead people to principles of character that create success. However, there is a shadowy side to habits and traditions that may lead to ineffectiveness and undermine quality.

If, forty years ago, a university laid out a plan to eliminate merit pay increases, it would have been met with stiff resistance. People would have recognized that such a plan was ill-conceived and, in a few generations, would lower the reputation and ultimately the productivity of the institution.

However, by incrementally “expanding” the standard of what is considered acceptable, we have reached a point where work that yields excellent results is treated in exactly the same fashion as work that demonstrates nothing like excellence. If all pies must be divided equally, excellence is irrelevant, and what once would have been considered “embarrassing, but recoverable” has now been reframed as “acceptable,” or, even more damagingly, as “expected.” The best and brightest are intolerant when mere longevity supplants a demonstrated ability to produce superior work as the basis for advancement and reward in an organization.

Given a chance, quality can become a tradition as surely as a marching band, a bonfire, or a homecoming. But where leadership and employees value seniority above performance, a tradition of minimizing effort will develop. Protecting jobs at the expense of rewarding performance will guide a university to second-rate academic standing. With the slightest wind-driven whiff, students and their families get the scent of decay. The smell of ineptness by faculty, staff, and students drives committed people away. Those who respect education will choose to work and study where a challenging intellectual environment is the norm rather than an exception. A tradition, not an anomaly.

Alumni become engaged when they see faculty members pursuing new ideas, pushing the bounds of their fields, and stoking the fire in the bellies of a new generation of graduates. A tradition of excellence can become infectious on a campus where departments recognize each other as resources of inspiration and skills, rather than just competitors for funds.

In fact, even the towns that surround universities are either elevated by a school’s tradition of excellence . . . or diminished by low standards. To be sure, the mediocrity in a school tarnishes the reputation of all parties affiliated with it, including alumni who clamor for the pride excellence produces.

Mud-filled ruts along university sidewalks, propagated by employees who can’t be bothered to respect the grounds, cause students to perceive habits of complacency, neglect, and disregard. By suggesting that things done on campus don’t warrant taking the time to do well, the expectations students have for the value of History 101 are likewise denigrated. If that correlation is not appreciated by university leaders and workers, they have already given themselves over to complacency, a cell in the penitentiary of low expectations.

The most troubling result of a habit that doesn’t honor excellence is the way it becomes reflected in the values of students. Meager expectations lead to an accommodating life view that saps the creativity and energy that sustains our nation culturally, artistically, and economically.

A pervasive tradition of achievement is a precious asset. Thankfully, a small spark of fire can be nurtured, providing light pushing into retreat the darkness of low expectation. High expectations held by members of the community create pride and anticipation, making citizenship rewarding.

And in our universities, just as human traditions of community and culture first developed around campfires of old, by giving meaning to a tradition of excellence, we fuel the fires around which our universities and our society grow. Ineffectiveness, tolerated or rewarded, is cold water on brilliance.


Our Universities: Competition

Competition for ideas is unlike competition for anything else.  If we compete to harvest the most gold, we find a limited supply.  Fastest person, physiology sets in.  Universities should compete for ideas, and those ideas will generate new resources. We should relish competition, not run from it, knowing there are no fences to limit the field of good ideas.

Public Schools too often fail because they are shielded from the very force that improves performance and sparks innovation in nearly every other human enterprise – competition.

Robert Lutz/Clark Durant

Human beings are a competitive lot.  Formal athletic competitions have existed as long as recorded history, and probably much longer.

Competitions among scholars and schools have been around for almost as long. The modern university has existed since the Middle Ages, and the oldest continuously run school in the world of any kind is Chengdu Shishi High School in China, dating a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. Beyond that, we have historical accounts of the contentions between the followers of various philosophers dating back to Thales and Anaximander.  However, contemporary competition for students, and the borrowed funds they bring with them, is creating a new definition of competition in the academic environment.

Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, addressed the virtue of economic competition as allocating productive resources to their most highly valued uses. Smith’s concept of economic competition is infiltrating universities and undermining fundamental purpose.  However, there are things of value besides money in the economy of universities. Educational institutions trade, most importantly, in ideas.

Smith’s framework is inappropriate for universities because it is based on the notion that value stems from scarcity. The model fails because, 1) an idea taken up by a scholar does not preclude others from working with the same idea, and 2) there is no limit on the number of new ideas that can be created when a group of thoughtful people get together and exercise their curiosity.

In fact, while great thoughts often come from leading scholars surrounded by capable students, many times within a group of faculty and students with modest accomplishments, an idea arises from someone whose life experience has given him or her unique perspective.  Just as you can power an engine from the methane produced by compost, an individual with drive can generate new ideas from a bog of old ones.

Competing for these students must be distinguished from the kind of competition that marketing firms engage in to attract some specific volume of self-funding students defined by a school’s budget rather than its scholarly aspirations. Unfortunately, from time to time, merchandisers, financiers and bean counters encourage universities to relax standards to create a larger pool from which to harvest, not dreams, but dollars; not accomplishment, but accommodation.

Often, leaders assume that size will eventually produce the intellectual capital that creates a first-class university environment.  A university that focuses on scholarship will always have a strong pool from which to draw students. However, institutions that believe that their reputation will automatically improve as the student body grows are misinformed. In fact, as competitive standards decrease for the sake of attracting more students, the academic quality of faculty and students sinks.  And reputation follows.

An institution less concerned with student learning than with market share trivializes itself.

Good students know the score.  They understand what it means when faculty quality is measured by years of service rather than success in the classroom and laboratory, and this applies equally to research universities and community colleges. There may be different ways to measure quality, but engagement in the life-of-the-mind matters to good students. Faculty members and academic units within the university that are rewarded simply for headcount will dilute student confidence in the quality and value of an institution’s degrees.

A faculty senate, association or labor union that busies itself with anything other than guaranteeing the highest standards of teaching and scholarship will ultimately degrade the institution’s reputation. Arguments against merit may drive union membership up for a season but also drive down a school’s ability to compete for students because they cannot heartily compete for ideas.

Higher education without sustained intellectual competition is neither higher nor education. This principle also holds in a preschool, kindergarten, primary, middle, or high school. Any action that bureaucratizes environments intended to teach thinking to meet political, market, or economic demands from workers, elected officials, or other external forces, undermines institutions and the goal of expanding human knowledge.

Our Universities: Eighteen Inches

Each person’s head and heart, the twin seats or our identity, lie just eighteen inches apart, about a cubit. The connection between them is being stretched to the breaking point by universities and other institutions that have tried desperately to suggest that progress is only possible when the two are disconnected, with only objective experience being valued.

At a 1941 symposium on the intersection between science, religion, and philosophy, Einstein said, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Amanda Gefter, Opinion editor, The New Science


I stood beside a swimming pool two or three times a week for two years watching my sons flailing at the water trying to shrink their time in a 25 yard spurt of breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, and free medley.

Next to me, week after week, stood a fellow who became my friend – Mike, an affable guy, ruddy complexion, committed to doing things well, a good scholar and a stunning example of an Irish Catholic. He watched his daughter while I watched my sons. As you might imagine the nuances of the various swim strokes were quickly vacated for more engaging chit-chat.

As happens over time we became friendly, and discussions we had over the din of the children learning and playing turned to topics friends can engage that acquaintances can’t. Mike was penetrating in his analysis of the human condition.

He also cussed like a sailor, and relentlessly and unreservedly voiced his disdain for the Catholic Church. Yet every week, he took his daughter from the swimming pool to Catechism. Never missed a beat.

One day I asked him about the apparent inconsistency between his complaints and his actions. He said without hesitation or apology that his daughter needed something to rebel against and the Catholic Church was a perfect foil.

I started to object, but he was steadfast. He felt that, even though he disagreed with the church’s stance on any number of topics, that everyone needed some fixed point from which to navigate. A personal North Star.

I’m not sure he fully believed what he told me, I never could get that out of him despite my best efforts. I know he was sincere about instilling a moral standard, even one that had imperfections, distortions, defects, tears, and stains.

Aside from the fact that my frame of reference was exactly the opposite of his, I agreed with his logic. Informed by my relationship with God, I have found in Christ an example that is perfect, clear, whole, consistent, and faultless. I guess you could say I have a different personal Star, the one that rose over Bethlehem.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to start a tradition that included bringing faculty, staff and friends of a university together to wish each other well during the holiday season. After an hour of visiting, a pianist accompanied hundreds of us, physicists and plumbers, teachers and trainers, groundskeepers and geologists, secretaries and scholars as we sang (I may be generous calling it that) Christmas songs. To this day, I think of that noise we made, and hear music in my heart …you know…the one that is eighteen inches from my head.

It was joyful.

It didn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but I think it meant something to everybody, even if only that we belong to something bigger than just ourselves.

The tree, gifts, families, friends, and the other secular trappings touched common memories, and we all knew that we weren’t alone in the dark, cold night. We did not have to share a single meaning to find meaning in the shared experience.

But we could sing, drink coffee, eat cookies, and acknowledge each other.

I’m convinced that that day reduced the distance between the hearts and heads of hundreds of dedicated servants from eighteen inches to zero, if only for an instant.

It seems the job of modernism and the modern world to separate head and heart. This eighteen-inch distance is wreaking havoc on universities, the people who populate them, and in turn, our social order.

Contrary to what some physicists and biologists think, science and ethics can coexist quite nicely. There should be room for this discussion on university campuses.

Science is not Truth. Science is a method for finding a particular kind of truth. Other methods let you find truths science cannot; truths that can lead us to become who we need to be, and help us build stronger communities.

When we only accept the icy standards of measurable phenomena, we diminish the reach of higher education, and eighteen inches becomes an impossible distance.

Thanks for your indulgences. It must be that time of year.






Our Universities: Earth and Ether

Universities must change if we are to continue serving our students. Evermore frequently, universities will be called to meet the specific needs of each student in a unique fashion. If it is properly integrated into the curriculum, distance education gives us great new opportunities to do just that.

“Just-in-case [is] giving way to the delivery of higher education just-in-time, and very soon to the delivery of education just-for-you.”

Molly Corbett Broad, Former President UNC


Remember when all universities had a residency requirement that went something like: “30 Credit hours of the last 36 credit hours must be taken on campus?” These requirements were in place so that students couldn’t game the system by transferring all but their last handful of credit hours to a particular university, to obtain a degree perceived to be of high value.

The universities’ interests were two-fold:

First, reputations are hard-earned. Universities must guarantee to the marketplace that their alumni embody the academic quality implicitly promised in their degrees. Judging this takes longer than a course or two.

Secondly, and more importantly, universities knew that their value to students is not merely test preparation and skills assessment, but, rather, the initiation into a life of learning that exists through, but also beyond, books and papers.

Introduction to such a life takes many forms, ranging from lectures to concerts and from casual conversations to heated debates. These are the grist of the university experience. Football games, fraternity mixers, even graduation ceremonies are the trappings of a university, not the substance.

A residence requirement is sometimes perceived as merely a university’s way of raising fee income; or guaranteeing job security for faculty and staff; or filling stadiums; or maintaining high-enrollment bragging rights among peer institutions. Instead, it should be defended as a purposeful, student-centered motive, because being embedded in a community of scholars provides myriad subtle opportunities for students to prepare for a life of meaning in the broader world.

The real value of residency requirements has always been that a good university creates an intellectual village, unique to a faculty, an institution, and a moment in history. In this environment, it is possible that a student may discover the range of people they could become.

Lately, institutions have begun using online classes as cost-cutting or income expanding opportunities without addressing the loss to students of the immediacy and richness of campus-based interactions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Universities could use distance learning to open students’ intellectual exposure beyond their village walls. Like merchants of another age travelling along the silk trading routes, such relationships could facilitate the rapid and thorough dissemination of new knowledge.

Universities should require two kinds of residence – 30 credit hours on campus, and, for argument’s sake, 15 hours online. Students and their advisors could choose online classes that supplement the student’s course of study, preferring schools other than that from which they plan to graduate.

Dual citizenship: one on earth, one in the ether.

A student interested in a particular aspect of electrical engineering might take a course from MIT or Stanford. A student interested in the philosophy of John Dewey might take a course from Southern Illinois University, while another takes a history course through the University of Virginia. Students could access a wider range of classes and professors, thereby gaining a broader perspective on disciplinary excellence, and a new appreciation for how the particular genius of their home university relates to a broader academic community. And, by increasing the competition for upper-level students, we would promote innovation in distance education.

People are questioning whether the value of a university education justifies the cost so this is not the time to do anything that reduces a university’s perceived value. Online coursework, in itself, doesn’t offer the richness of experience that differentiates one university from another. But, a worthy goal could be achieved if distance education were used to extend a student’s network of ideas and relationships beyond the scope of their single intellectual village.

Online opportunities, if established thoughtfully, could expand the horizons of students and better prepare them for the life-long education, professional interaction, and experiences that define the contemporary world. But students’ and their families recognize a cash-grab when they see one, and won’t long tolerate it. They don’t like being played.

The highest priority of our universities must always be our duty to our students, who trust us to prepare them to step out into the world as global citizens.



Our Universities: Like Museums

Museums bridge the gap between study and reality and, as in universities, the relationship between communities and the meaning of the things they have produced can both be confused and confusing at times.  James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist and mathematician responsible for classical electromagnetic theory understood the interaction and the similarities.

In a University we are especially bound to recognize not only the unity of science itself, but the communion of the workers in science. We are too apt to suppose that we are congregated here merely to be within reach of certain appliances of study, such as museums and laboratories, libraries and lecturers, so that each of us may study what he prefers. I suppose that when the bees crowd round the flowers it is for the sake of the honey that they do so, never thinking that it is the dust which they are carrying from flower to flower which is to render possible a more splendid array of flowers, and a busier crowd of bees, in the years to come. We cannot, therefore, do better than improve the shining hour in helping forward the cross-fertilization of the sciences.

James Clerk Maxwell


I look at a Google Map output, and am struck by the different ways people think about where they are and where they’re going.  I can go to my computer and print out instructions to get from my house to any place in the country that include distances and compass readings so that in an instant I place myself on the planet.

But, when you ask a person how to get to the drugstore, they won’t to tell you to “go 2.4 miles NNW and turn 37º toward the South.”  You’re more likely to hear something like, “go up to the McDonald’s where the old fire station used to be, and take a left.” They’ll use familiar landmarks and shared history as references to guide you.

It’s not always practical for us to place ourselves in absolute terms.  What we need is to understand how to get from where we are to where we want to be.  When we progress as a people into new cultural, scientific, and economic domains, we have some of the same concerns we’d have if we were setting off on a road trip to some new destination; where do we want to go, and, how do we find our way, given what we know from our experience?

Museums and universities help us keep track of our cultural landmarks, and use them to find new ways forward. In Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum, James Cuno, who makes his living as the CEO of the Getty Trust, argues that museums play a central role in the culture of nations, safeguarding encyclopedic collections of artifacts that we use to understand who we are.  They catalog the values and ideas of communities, highlighting similarities and differences, and allow us to orient ourselves in the flow of human history. 

When purposefully led, and populated with committed faculty, staff and students, the university safeguards significant ideas in the same way museums safeguard artifacts, allowing us to situate ourselves in terms of our ever-developing culture.

The great museums of the world show what is common to the human condition while highlighting the perspectives that give unique meanings to the different ways we work and live.  Universities let us look further ahead and provide road maps to reach our future.  We seek out places like these to ponder, to plan, and to persistently wring meaning out of our experiences. 

It’s easy to lose sight of this amid the recent rhetoric concerning which people and programs must be beyond the reach of budget cuts, and why this group’s concerns trump that group’s.  University jobs are created and people are employed because there’s economically vital work to do condensing and conveying culture to and for the community through students.  Without that mission, universities are expensive vocational schools, alarmingly unaffordable and increasingly directionless in contrast to the razor-sharp focus of programs that provide workforce education.  Both institutions are valuable but not interchangeable.

Is this ideal too high-minded?  Not one doggone bit.

Museums demonstrate a nation’s passion.  Walk down the mall in Washington D.C. and you’ll see the embodiment of American ingenuity, the genius of American intellect, and the industriousness of the American worker, roadmaps of the struggles of American success.  These can be read from each exhibit in every museum, but are not bottled up, preserved and protected like the answers from Johnny’s Carnac the Magnificent gig, “They’ve been kept in a #2 mayonnaise jar under Funk and Wagnall’s back porch.” 

On a university campus, though, the road maps are embossed on the faces of the people who serve and are served.  Universities and museums let us understand society’s character, catalog and project it.

Either institution aiming for less is gratuitous squander of scarce resources.