Our Universities: Traditions

Universities are defined by their traditions. They can take many forms, some positive, and some negative, but all communities have traditions shaped by citizens who reside there, and a university is a community. Traditions cannot be regulated or imposed, but must rise from within.

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.

Gilbert K. Chesterton


No university exists without traditions.

Universities that desire to establish positive cultures must aim towards traditions that recognize desirable accomplishment. For example, at Texas A&M University, there is a powerful tradition associated with the attainment of an Aggie Ring. A student must have completed 95 hours of coursework to order The Ring. This tradition is passed on from one generation of students to the next. It recognizes the value of individually driven attainment to the community and acknowledges that, as Aggies, personal and institutional reputations will be intertwined from that point forward.


Peter M. Mogolda, in a piece titled The Campus Tour: Ritual And Community In Higher Education, discusses how “the use of rituals generates a sense of community,” seen as such a valuable means of differentiating one university from another, that they often become a central marketing theme to attract potential students. A community is more likely to be productive when its members are engaged in their common work. Rituals help a community pass down and reinforce shared mission. But, since rituals only develop in an environment of meaningful community experiences, they can also be used as a performance measure.

Rituals provide a framework for understanding meanings that are bigger than the concerns of an individual. I am not sure that it takes a village to raise a child, but the likelihood of success in anything is higher when someone belongs to something bigger than themselves… a family, a house of worship, a village, a community, or an institution.

Unfortunately, in many universities, rituals and traditions are being replaced by performance measures in a clumsy attempt to quantify the student experience rather than create it.

Rituals breed a sense of belonging and bonding that Peter McLaren illuminated in a study of a parochial school in a working class Toronto neighborhood. He suggested, “Rituals play a crucial and ineradicable role in the whole of the student’s existence.”

Traditions and rituals are an important component of the university experience at the best schools, but it must also be acknowledged that some institutions are so laden with traditions that excellence is subjugated to sacrament. Traditions, the liturgy of a community, can run amok, leading students to participate in acts that, in any other setting, would be unthinkable. Recent revelations about hazing in the Marching 100 Band at Florida A&M University provide but one example.

Destructive traditions act with the same force as positive ones.

Counting the number of course hours taken, or even baccalaureate degrees produced, cannot possibly measure a university’s success in the same way that understanding the meaning of being able to attain an Aggie ring does. This self-sustaining tradition is a measure of the strength of the bond between students and an institution committed to excellence.

Traditions and rituals that uphold and direct action towards excellence are pervasive at the best universities and carry tremendous weight on university campuses. Even traditions in intercollegiate athletics can have academic value when they strengthen the university community. In fact, the most successful intercollegiate athletics programs in public universities reside at universities that are academically successful.

Traditions and behaviors that mark rites of passage, attainment of community membership, and other aspects of citizenship are most pronounced at strong academic institutions. For example, some institutions recognize teaching and research excellence by providing membership in the club of other peer-recognized teachers and scholars. Membership in those clubs is marked by rings, watches, certificates, compensation, and public recognition.

At our universities, the best faculty, staff, and students will work tirelessly to attain a tradition of excellence if leadership holds it as an aspiration. Absent that, nothing related to performance matters. Rituals and traditions bind students, faculty, staff, and alumni to a common mission that is greater than any individual member of their community.

Traditions are a matter of created institutional culture, not an accident, and never an accessory.


Our Universities: Tenure and the Marketplace

Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times Opinionator online July 11, 2011, comments extensively on the relationship of tenure, academic freedom, and current university life in response to a book by Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled, “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Paid For.”  Both commentary and book carry arcane and dated views of tenure.  But here is a tenure fact for one of the largest state university systems in the nation:

The vast majority of faculty members appointed to the tenure track in recent years have experienced success, as evidenced by a rate of denial of tenure and non-reappointment of slightly more than 1%.

The California State University, Office of the Chancellor, November 2009


I worked with Christopher Alexander while at Berkeley, a man with a keen mind and a powerful view of architecture in the twentieth century.  He took the position that architects themselves were the cause of the failure of “modern” architecture because they failed to respond to the needs of people.  He argued that we would be better off with more user and citizen input into the designs of buildings and public places, because the public relied on experience and common sense – substance over style.

Architects lacked the humility and insight to accept knowledge they saw as mundane.

Alexander, in addition to helping pioneer the computer as a design thinking/doing tool, led a revolution of sorts in thinking about the architectural profession.

His ideas antagonized people. He challenged the status quo.  He suggested that the profession was the problem, not the cure.  In The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, as well as in a lasting body of additional work, Alexander laid out a different vision for the profession.

He built his arguments, not at a faculty meeting, but in a studio; not in a union hall, but in a laboratory; not in a courtroom, but in his office; not on politics, but intellect.

The university exists in a powerful international marketplace that values original ideas, not ideological diatribes masquerading as insight.

While Alexander fought his battles with the leadership of the university, he was constantly bombarded with inquiries from universities around the world.  Would he like to teach here?  Would he be the dean there?  Would he accept an endowed chair? His job security didn’t come from his tenured position.  It came from the power and quality of his ideas.

I soon formulated this paradoxical axiom regarding tenure:  The people who have ideas worthy of tenure don’t need tenure, and the people who need tenure for job security don’t deserve it. The power of the marketplace outweighs the shortsightedness of people panicked by original thinking.  Faculty members only fear new ideas when they worry about the defensibility of their own.  This phenomenon has only become more common as universities have increasingly become political organizations rather than intellectual ones.

Christopher Alexander is the only person I ever met who might have been fired for his ideas had he not been tenured.  I emphasize might because the university very likely would have gotten hold of its fear with both hands and said, “Wait a minute, this may be shortsighted.”  Their folly would have been immediately rectified by the clear-headedness of the marketplace.  Alexander had ideas that both stirred and scared people.  Under that scenario, the university must ask, “If not here, where?”  And for these few people the marketplace makes redundant the purpose of tenure.

I have met two people with tenure who would have been fired had they not had tenure because of the depth and power of their ideas.

For a thankfully few others, the risk of firing did not come from ideas, but rather because  faculty members did not do a good job: They were not good teachers, and did little to integrate whatever scholarly perspective they had into the public square of the program and students they served.  Tenure protected them from these various forms of incompetence, and that is not supposed to be its purpose.

Our universities need to allow faculty members the freedom not to worry too much about the adverse effect of new ideas. However, there must be consequences when instructors do not perform their jobs adequately if few are to provide an education of substance to each student.

Tenure should not protect incompetent professors.  It should protect promising, innovative ideas while their foundations are being strengthened enough for them to stand on their own if they can.

Galileo might have fleetingly thought he needed tenure, if he knew what it was, for championing a heliocentric universe.  He didn’t . . . because the marketplace prevailed.