Monday, February 09, 2009

Reinvention or Extinction: The Gospel According to St. Gordon

By Richard Vedder

Gordon Gee is clearly one of the most interesting characters on the American higher education scene. Most persons in Columbus, Ohio think he walks on water and is in the process of taking Ohio State to "the next highest level" (heaven?), whatever that means. Gordon's popularity with university presidents is more mixed, however, and I know one or two prominent ones who think he is something of a charlatan/comedian more than a serious thinker about higher education today.

That said, President Gee (formerly of West Virginia University, the University of Colorado, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University) made a remarkable speech at the American Council of Education meetings last week, apparently receiving a standing ovation. And I must admit I really liked most of what Gee had to say.

Universities face "reinvention or extinction" we are told. Universities should not hunker down and beg for enough money to ride out this downturn (which they are doing as we speak with their lobbyists working overtime to get stimulus dollars), but start to rethink the way they do business. Maybe we should deep six academic departments, promote greater interdisciplinary learning, etc., Gee opines. Maybe we should get more serious about the integration of community colleges and four year universities, meaning more than silly little articulation agreements.

All for the good, rhetorically. Gordon is a great talker. But as president of Ohio State he has bloated the administrative staff, and sent top salaries through the roof (beginning, of course, with his own). He has not dared tax the athletic department that takes in well over $100 million a year to help pay for university operations, or bring it into the mainstream of the university as he did (or tried to do) at Vanderbilt. And merely changing the organization of faculty is a trivial change in light of the economics of universities and the problems they face in coming years. Where does technology and capital-labor substitution fit into the mix? How do we provide incentives to make universities more cost conscious? How do we change the "publish or perish" culture to make research more economically viable and less expensive and self-serving? Etc., etc., etc.

Nonetheless, it sounded like a rousing speech, and, knowing Gordon Gee, it was no doubt delivered with much flourish. Enough words, however; let's have some action.


capeman said...

"Universities should not hunker down and beg for enough money to ride out this downturn (which they are doing as we speak with their lobbyists working overtime to get stimulus dollars"

This is an absurd statement. Universities are not "begging for enough" to survive the current downturn. They are not in danger of "extinction". The amounts of stimulus money are peanuts compared to their overall budgets. They might as well get in on the goodies, if there is going to be a stimulus package. But they idea that they need this to survive is ridiculous.

Lenny said...

Did Gordon Gee **** your wife, Doc?

Seriously, you have a raging hard on for this guy. Gee (pun intended), I wonder what most prominent university presidents think of your "destroy the village in order to save it" prescription for public higher education?

Obviously most prominent university presidents--not to mention prominent deans of econ departments--never thought much of you or they would have hired you away from the academic backwaters of Athens, OH.

AGM said...

The fact is that those of us who work as administrators in America's colleges and universities have had our ethics hijacked. We continue to balance our budgets by admitting students into freshman classes with no chance of them ever graduating. The schools that do get them to graduate do so only by providing academic programs that provide knowledge and skills that prepare their graduates for careers as convenience store clerks. We then declare victory in the name of diversity.
Public money that could go to stimulating this economy is going to create graduate programs of no value so that America's worst faculty can sit in front of America's worst college students. In the end the money would be better spent paying them all to move rocks from one side of the campus to the other. At least they would all get exercise.
American higher education is addicted to spending and lying and we need to get on a 12 step program fast or we will water down the value of a college education to the point it is worthless.
We can blame the courts for Griggs v. Duke Power but had we not allowed community colleges to veer from their original mission of technical and continuing education and if we had not allowed 4 year schools to become 5 year schools so truck drivers and factory workers (both noble jobs)could be turned into speech communication majors the market would have found a better way to deal with the decision.
What is perhaps most tragic is the thousands of deserving students and faculty who are not receiving the attention or resources they deserve because in an attempt to stamp out elitism and adjust for wasteful spending the academy has become far less rigorous and more interested in "appearing good" than "doing good." Will the country really be better off by guaranteeing that everyone can go to college regardless of their intelligence?

capeman said...

AGM -- I don't know your work history, but it sounds like you need a new position fast -- otherwise the guilt is going to get to you.