Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Moorhead State and the Future of the University

Minnesota State University Moorhead has a plan to close its $5 million budget deficit: eliminate the departments of English, History, Physics, Political Science, Philosophy, and Computer Science. As I understand it, there would still be teaching in the fields after the departments have been shuttered. The point is to get rid of a lot of tenured faculty, and one way to do that is to close the whole department. When the department goes away, the protection of tenure evaporates, and the university can fire all the high-salaried people they think they can't afford. (This is a common trick in the Federal bureaucracy as well, where it is also very difficult to fire people but possible to eliminate whole offices; they call it a RIF, for "reduction in force," and people fired in this way are said to be "riffed.")

With all those departments and professors gone, will what's left still be a university?

Well, that depends on what a university is, and what it is trying to teach people. As all my readers know, I am highly dubious of our "college for everybody" approach; it seems to me that our 60-year experiment in mass university education has not gone very well. I will wager a guess that most of the people at Moorhead State are there because they want better jobs, and they have little interest in studying philosophy or literature. What is gained by forcing it on them? Would some sort of narrower technical education -- in business, accounting, medical technology -- be more use to them and our society? I think if I were the dictator of education in Minnesota I would respond to the crisis by converting Moorhead into a community college. (Which is absolutely what they should do with the University of the District of Columbia, another school having severe budget problems.)

It seems to me that the only possible solution to the ongoing university funding crisis is fewer four-year colleges. If half the non-selective schools in the country were closed or downgraded, the pool of state and Federal funding would go farther for the ones that remain, enabling them to keep up a higher standard, to better serve the newly concentrated students actually interested in education. This would require a change in our attitudes about many jobs, which now require a four-year degree for no particular reason. But the system we have seems to me to be wasting gigantic amounts of human energy: the energy of professors teaching what students don't want to learn, of students studying what they don't care about, of administrators fighting to keep schools open when they are serving no clear purpose.

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