Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Taking the Show on the Road

The speech went really well – it was gratifying to see such an enthusiastic response to the themes and topics I’ve been developing in this blog. I was the last item on the agenda, post-lunch and pre-going-home, but the faculty stayed an extra half-hour to keep the discussion going.

That’s not to toot my own horn – I make no grand claims about stage presence – but just to say that there’s an eagerness out there to get at the issues that higher ed seems to face over and over again.

This morning I heard from a friend at my previous school. They just had a major layoff of staff, with a major layoff of faculty expected at the end of the semester. Some familiar faces gone, others shuffled into roles that, well, wouldn’t have been their first choices.

Despite their very different profiles (for-profit tech school vs. community college), my previous and current employer share a few key traits, as do most colleges in America: low on the prestige hierarchy, tuition-driven, teaching-centered, and utterly below the radar of the mainstream media (MSM). Also, major and chronic budget issues that seem to defeat any sort of internal solution.

As far as the MSM is concerned, though, higher ed in America is confined to about a dozen institutions (Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Michigan, Berkeley…), affirmative action for admissions is the hottest potato going, and every professor in America is simply abuzz about Lawrence Summers’ latest bout of foot-in-mouth disease.

Makes ya wonder. Elite research universities are, all things considered, a very small piece of the puzzle. More students are enrolled in community colleges in America than in every other college and university combined. For us, of course, affirmative action for admissions is a non-issue; we take everybody. Lawrence Summers strikes me as vaguely embarrassing in a Shatner-esque sort of way, but he’s also, in my universe, utterly unimportant. He no more affects my world than do Brad and Jennifer.

In a way, I shouldn’t complain. The very blindness of the MSM (and the discipline-based ‘opinion leaders’ within academia) to the majority of colleges in America means that the issues I’ve been raising aren’t stale. If anything, to judge by my audience’s reaction, they have the novelty that comes from recognizing something familiar in a new way.

Well, enough of that. I have to get the dog and pony ready for a show tomorrow.