“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

According to M. Jagger that is.

From every corner of the universe of universities, dissatisfaction with campus climate abounds. The costs, the social climate, the impact, the value, and nearly every other aspect of university life are maligned by one group or another.  Universities have long been scrutinized for the social contribution they deliver, or not, on the one hand; and on the other hand they are credited with powering up the industrial revolution, through the Morrill Act signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 4, 1862, and igniting the information technology whirlwind that is transforming the lives of everyone from pauper to prince.

In a recent Time web post, Steve Cohen reports that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tallies increases of 1200% in the cost of college attendance, 634% in healthcare, and 279% in the consumer price indexes from 1978 to the present. Wildly increasing educational costs make parents the North Star in the constellation of campus complainers.

Students are unhappy. Cicely Frew, reporting on a study from Great Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), says that young people are working too much, have too little contact with faculty, are paying higher fees, and are getting less for their money: a British Invasion representing intercontinental frustration.

Faculty members at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center  cite a “Climate of Fear” and has called for President Ronald DePinho’s job.  In some states, the general level of faculty discontent is high and evacuation ensues, says a report from the State of Iowa. The grass is greener on the other side according to faculty exit interviews. I hope for their sake they are not victims like the pup popularized in Walt Disney’s version of Aesop’s fable, “The Dog and Its Reflection.”    These rolling stones march across state lines to the beat of a familiar ditty: “Dissatisfaction with department chair continues to be one of the major reasons cited.”

Officers of public safety are “dissatisfied with the job,” and a Michigan State University study questions the value of a university education for police officers. Interestingly, the “disconnect” between what happens in universities regarding problem-solving, debating ideas, and reflective practice, often doesn’t work well on the street. Policing skills may command a college degree, but the degree must be tailored to the work at hand.  In either case the cops suspect university leaders as perpetrators.

Last week, a Forbes post reported that the community of commerce is an unhappy campus camper.  Business leaders believe that innovation would make our nation and its economy stronger if universities would provide effective entrepreneurial education.   “Not only are our universities not teaching innovation, or delivering an innovative experience, they seem to be doing their best to destroy innovative thinking in young people.”   Pundits proclaim universities produce the same thing over and over, like so many widgets, without the benefits of students who can “be comfortable with pivoting, adapting, and changing, often and without hesitation.”  There is too much pre-packaged information in course syllabi driven by the desire for demonstrable, defensible, results in board rooms and statehouses. The result is a second-class university experience. And business leaders charge colleges with failing to lead.

Elected leaders don’t poll well either.  President Obama’s grading scheme for higher education is rooted in dissatisfaction with the enterprise and its ability to create a much needed workforce.  Marco Rubio says the same thing. And both find universities wanting.

All these beefs might be addressed if universities would learn from their mistakes.  According to a study from Frederick H Schiller University, reported in Science Daily, concerns never reach the top. Leadership doesn’t know, and the implication is that they don’t want to know, how well or poorly institutions perform.

What to do?

For a parent, transparency:  Every family gets an estimate — four year cost, anticipated annual earnings, and loan payments if borrowing.  Student’s sign it or don’t register.

For a student, realism: Being accepted and signing up guarantees the opportunity for success or failure, nothing else.  Some majors are a cakewalk, others are backbreaking.  Some provide jobs and intellectual stimulation; others provide one or neither.

For a faculty, merit:  Faculty members are like students and administrators, getting “in” guarantees nothing. Staying “in” requires relentless peer assessment of all work.

For a police officer, purpose:  The value and intention of any degree, what it is and what it’s not is manifest in utility demonstrated by a coupling of insight, experience and performance.

For an employer, marriage:  Graduates enter employment with the goal of a long term relationship.  Business invests in employees through continued intellectual growth.

For an elected leader, trust:  Boards and university leaders should esteem the opportunity of service they are charged with.  Otherwise, they should go.

For a university, responsiveness:  What worked in the last century may not work in this one.  Universities must change or be changed.

Feigned ignorance and affected denial evidenced in the pop culture lament “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” misses the point, principle, privilege and possibilities of higher education.

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