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.