I’m a nobody in higher ed leadership—but I still believe I know what’s right

I know there is an alternative response to throwing in the towel on a liberal arts education and joining the race to the bottom. And I know the definition of a spayed college president or chancellor.
Edward Halperin
Edward Halperinhttps://www.nymc.edu/about-nymc/nymc-leadership/chancellorceo/
Dr. Edward Halperin is the chancellor and chief executive officer of New York Medical College and a professor of radiation oncology, pediatrics and history. His multifaceted expertise encompasses pediatric radiation oncology, medical history and health sciences education.

State universities in West Virginia have an uphill struggle to resuscitate interest in higher education. Ravaged by a poor economy, declining population and an understated opiate crisis, it has the lowest bachelor’s degree level educated percentage of all 50 states.

Due to shifting market needs, President Gordon Gee announced last August that West Virginia University would cut or restructure 32 programs and lay off 169 faculty. On the chopping block were undergraduate majors in music, art and multiple foreign languages; master’s programs in acting, landscape architecture and creative writing; and doctoral programs in mathematics, management, higher education and occupational- and environmental health sciences.

“We must focus on market-driven majors, create areas of excellence and be highly relevant to our students and their families,” President Gee said when announcing the 2020 blueprint to last year’s drastic decision.

Many will undoubtedly listen to him, and for good reason: President Gee, who is 79, is a serial president. He served as president of WVU from 1981 to 1985, followed by tenures as president at the University of Colorado, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, two at Ohio State University and returned to WVU in 2014.

However, I know there is an alternative response to throwing in the towel on a liberal arts education and joining the race to the bottom. And I know the definition of a spayed college president or chancellor: someone unwilling to quit or be fired over a matter of principle. The principle which is at stake here is the purpose of a university. A president ought to be willing to quit or be fired over that principle.

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What is a land-grant university’s core principle?

President Gee characterizes land-grant universities in his book, “Land-Grant Universities for the Future,” as institutions meant to “prioritize their activities based on the needs of the communities they were designed to serve.”

I respectfully push back on that definition. We should not fall prey to vocationalism, the idea that the sole purpose of a university is to make people “job-ready” for local corporations. Vocationalism misses a key part of the purpose of land-grant universities, much less the university enterprise in general.

University of Chicago President Emeritus Robert Maynard Hutchins knew “that the best practical education is the most theoretical one…change on every front is so rapid that what one generation has learned of practical affairs in the realm of politics, industry, business, and technology is of little value to the next… It is principles, and everlastingly principles, not data, not facts, not helpful hints, but principles which the rising generation requires if it is to find its way through the mazes of tomorrow.”

In his magisterial book “The Idea of a University,” Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “It is the education which gives a [person] a clear, concise view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches [a person] to see things as they are, go right to the point, disentangle a skein of thought, detect what is sophistical and discard what is irrelevant.”

Higher education is not solely about bringing home a paycheck. It is about grappling with questions such as “What is a good life? How ought it be lived? What is right?” As Hutchins pointed out, to live life is, by definition, to be a liberal artist, so the only question before us is whether we shall be a good or bad one.

I say all of this with humility. In the grand scheme of higher education leadership, I’m a nobody. I lead a small, private graduate-level college, and I’m a lucky man if I can raise enough money for an endowed lectureship. As far as big-time sports, my school has intramural corn hole.

Nonetheless, I am informed enough to know that the curse of a sole focus on vocationalism comes as a reaction to corporate leaders and their willing collaborators in state legislatures who think it is either difficult or impractical to interest students in the liberal arts or, heaven forbid, that it might make them into informed voters.

I may be a nobody in higher education, but I know that I want to educate students to be good liberal artists, informed citizens and capable of changing with changing times. I think the somebodies in higher education should believe that also.


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