Traditional education better and worse

Recently, we’ve have heard a lot of promising discussion about the future of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. In particular, Interim Chancellor Calvin Johnson has dared to challenge one of the institution’s historical cornerstones, namely the paucity of students who are not African-American.

Johnson seems to recognize that honoring one’s traditions does not mean being owned by them. Contrary to the all-too-common manifestation of the term, “diversity” does not mean substituting the monopolization of an organization by one group with the blind monopolization by another. Rather, it is about creating an environment in which all sectors of the community have meaningful representation. Until recently, Johnson’s brave admonition would have likely garnered a staunch rebuke. Now, more enlightened members of the university community understand the iron necessity of it.

If UAPB is to continue as an institution of higher learning, it must evolve beyond the insulated confines that were permissive of failing programs and administrative corruption. It must also evolve beyond its historical racial boundaries.

These issues are hardly unique to UAPB. Colleges and universities all over the nation are struggling to assert their continued relevance. The exemplar of this battle is found in the University of Texas at Austin. The school is the flagship campus of the Texas university system. It has several programs that are regarded as among the very best in their respective disciplines.

Even so, a destructive tide of anti-intellectualism masquerading as business-oriented education stands to destroy one of the nation’s best schools. Not surprisingly, a prime mover behind this misplaced effort is Texas’ bumbling Republican governor, Rick Perry.

This “reform” movement began approximately five years ago when Perry called a special conference of all the university system regents to articulate his “vision” for Texas universities. As it turns out, many of the reform proposals had come from a close ally, a Texas oil baron and former UT business school professor named Jeff Sandefer. According to a National Public Radio report on the matter, Sandefer believes that the modern university is a “dinosaur.”

Sandefer argues that professors concentrate too much on research and writing books. His solution is to essentially turn Texas’ universities into the kind of “superstar community colleges” where many professors would not be tenured or necessarily even full-time. They’d be experts working in their industries, and they’d be paid for how much money they brought into the university and how many students they taught. In short, it’s akin to running a university like a fast food restaurant.

This nonsense is just one more manifestation of the flawed “run government like a business” paradigm that attracts so many naïve adherents.

In the first place, the goals of government and business are fundamentally different. We don’t ask the police or our fire departments to turn a profit; and, as a matter of fact, when Arkansas’ prison systems worked inmates to death in order to do so, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

What’s worse is that this university-as-business ideal promotes a consumerist mindset among students — which is to say, “I paid for the class, so I have purchased a good grade.”

Lastly, what Perry, Sandefer and their lot fail to recognize is that all the money they think professors should rake in for schools is only possible if the professors agree to write those books and papers in return. More often than not, the supporting grants that undergird the traditional modality of university management also provide tuition assistance, scholarships and graduate assistantships for students who help professors with all this “pointless” research.

In summary, UAPB and the University of Texas provide us with two instructive examples about traditions. On the one hand, we have a school hindered by an adherence to it and on the other, we have a school that excels because of it. If universities are to remain relevant, their administrations must figure out which is which.