Higher Ed.: Excellence or Marketing

The heart of education is the relationship between a wise and knowledgeable teacher, a willing learner, and the intellectual culture in the student’s home. Next, comes the availability of educational tools and, finally, educational amenities.

When asked about my own education, a dozen or so women and men come to mind. They altered the course of my life. They didn’t care about my self-esteem, confident that that would come with my learning. They cared about me and stretched my capacity for acquiring knowledge and skills. I sometimes feared but always trusted them.

The mission of education is to teach students to gather data and information and learn to process it in a way that imbues them with knowledge. Experience then enriches knowledge, imparting wisdom.

Physical and digital libraries, laboratories, museums, class rooms, and distance learning networks are the tools used in the learning process. Shops, cafes, dorms, infirmaries, yoga studios, pools, stadiums, and parking lots are amenities.

Many institutions of higher learning have lost their way or at least confounded their priorities. In the competition to attract students, amenities have come to play a greater role, consuming more of the investments that are needed to deliver on educational mission. At a time when fewer and fewer students and parents can afford the amenities colleges compete to offer, colleges keep building new ones to attract more applications. A former college president of a major New England liberal arts college told me several years back that in a student satisfaction survey, the top complaint was lack of adequate shopping experiences in the small New England town in which the college is located.

Meanwhile, colleges loath to confront outdated tenure and post-employment benefit policies, sidestep these contentious issues by hiring adjuncts to subsidize tenured faculty, exacerbating the polarity of compensation between the two. The primary investment in any school should be to hire and retain effective teachers. The policies affecting their employment should be both generous and accountable. Teachers should be held harmless from science-denying or ideologically obsessed legislators and alumni/ae-donors. In turn, they should be held accountable for the quality of their teaching and their student outcomes.

Colleges and universities driven by mission will compete internationally for the finest teachers, who themselves will be the lifelong learners they urge their students to be. They will, by necessity, be more mobile, counting less on tenure and more on diverse teaching experiences. TA and adjunct hiring should become a limited expediency to fill short-term gaps rather than a cost-cutting ploy.

Educational tools are changing, as well. As books are scanned and become more accessible and easily searchable, Library shelf space will give way to global digital libraries, scientific databases, and networks linking colleges and universities around the globe. Dorms will no longer be filled with nine-month students but instead by year-round, successive waves of lower residency students of all ages at a lower cost.

The hierarchy of investment in world class institutions will be teachers first, then educational resources and, finally, comfortable amenities.

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