By Eli Kramer
I’m here with good news, “Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s fall 2019 enrollment data shows a strong freshman class and an increase in the freshman to sophomore retention rate. Overall, total enrollment is 11,695, down 8.75 percent from fall 2018,” or so my graduate alma mater presents their current situation to me. One might put it another way, that is SIUC’s enrollment has dropped by more than 40% over the last decade. New marketing, campaigns, facilities, and a multi-million dollar administrative building have not seemed to stem the tide of administrative maleficence, things that could have done better, and things like the shrinking of federal and state funds with a correlate rise in tuition that are part of wider forces that are much harder to control. The best we can hope for it seems is to stop the hemorrhaging. The crack in our window is slowly spreading, but we heard from our friends that duct tape can slow down its progression, so we’re supposed to use that old magic material. “We have a new marketing campaign showing the distinctive excellence of our campus,” every executive of a struggling college or university has probably said in one form or another. But what they mean for those who have some experience with the mechanics of the university is, “that my friend told me about this trick that may slow down the breakdown of our institution.” And that is the best case scenario, they might be trying to sell you the car, so they can go get another better one. Rapid executive turnover at American liberal arts colleges and universities continues to exacerbate our problems.
Let’s be idealistic though and say our executive colleague really does want to fix-up our beaten down car. They keep offering quick fixes with the same tool, magic duct tape: “Sure, the rain is getting into the car, but why don’t we just duct tape the inlining back to the edge?”; “X college next to us is getting more students because of its new recreation center, let’s compete with new high quality dorms. Donors will flock if they can have their name on a building, and we can have students pay more for the nicer accommodations”; “The car is making a weird hissing sound every time you turn right? That is not a priority my friend, what you need is a new paint job. Put some duct tape on hole where your car is leaking coolant, and let’s get the new paint job done, metallic silver sounds like a bold color for a car!”; “The university is losing graduate students? Don’t worry about the loss of graduate assistantships, what we need is a new marketing campaign to increase the undergraduate student body, and have those coveted tuition dollars.”
To be fair to our well intentioned executive colleague, they are likely all too aware that the car is dying. But they are no engineer or mechanic, just a practical person that wanted a comfortable job in a field they valued or at least think they can get a handle on.. They ask their fellow executive friends for advice, but they too are not sure what to do, never mind knowing how to fix their own slowly dying cars. They don’t want to tell their family that after the car dies they will have no other form of transportation. The best they can do is slow down the damage.
Outside of higher education, we are all too familiar with this logic. The most idealistic of us hope we can merely reduce our carbon outputs to slow down the exponential damage happening to world ecosystems. We hope to slow the deterioration of our democracy by voting for the “lesser of two evils” candidates.
Now there is nothing wrong with duct tape. I too want the car to run as long as it can, and sometimes that really is all that is in our power to use until a more propitious moment, a new paycheck, a gift from a relative, etc. We are also a wasteful culture when it comes to running for the next cool gadget, instead of fixing with duct tape what is durable and meant to last. The problem I see in higher education, and really just as emblematic of our whole cultural situation, is that ALL WE USE IS DUCT TAPE. Executives in higher education feel that their only resource is the same short term fixes to slow down the weakening of our important higher education institutions. They may fix short term problems, but they don’t do anything for the long term crisis. Worse than that, they make new problems. My college may now compete with the amenities of its neighboring institution, but the upkeep adds to their skyrocketing residential maintenance costs, so once again tuition increases to an unreasonable price, which in turn makes students wonder what they are paying for save a hotel that will leave them with crushing debt.
Maybe it’s time not only to give up the car, but question how we are getting to work, maybe we bike, or car-pool, or even better, make an interconnected transit system of hi-speed trains. Maybe we walk or question where we go to work. Maybe it is time to rethink what a liberal arts college or university looks like. Maybe they offer a variety of certificates and varied sorts of degree options outside of the BA/BS, MA, PHD tract. Need training in Python programming language? Here is a very affordable part time-two month program that includes in person or online tutoring if desired. Want to learn about how Stoicism can help you live a happier life? Here is a course that meets on the weekends for two months, that costs $50 bucks, and counts as credit for a variety of other long term programs. Maybe it doesn’t even look like one residential institution but an accredited interconnected nexus of activities held across multiple cities worldwide.
At the New American Baccalaureate, we love our duct tape, and will seek all the fixes we can with it, but while the car is in trouble, we suggest preparing for the future. It's time for more than duct tape solutions for our struggling but invaluable liberal arts and sciences colleges and universities. It's time we think short term, while investing long term. It's time to admit that sometimes bold initiatives are needed, otherwise we can ameliorate ourselves into the ground. Otherwise we can quick fix our problems until our car dies and we are left stranded on the highway with no where to go.