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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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If You're Not All Things to All People, What Are You?

We need some new visions for what higher ed should be. Join the conversation.

July 9, 2019
 
 

In announcing his plans to cut the state appropriations to the University of Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared that the university cannot “be all things to all people.”

Writing at the Chronicle, Lindsay Ellis notes that this is a “constant refrain” in higher ed when budgets are to be cut. It is a saying that carries enormous weight while being simultaneously meaningless. 

For me, it’s in the same rhetorical realm as “do more with less,” another cliché that somehow suggests progress is possible, even as resources are being removed from the equation. 

argued last week that Gov. Dunleavy’s moves in Alaska, while radical because of their suddenness, are not unlike what’s been happening in slower motion in many other states. Christopher Newfield zeroes in on how we have indeed seen this playbook already. Gov. Dunleavy has even called in the field general, a consultant named Donna Arduin, who advised Scott Walker as he slashed the funding[1]for the University of Wisconsin system, and even more recently, in Newfield’s words, “worked as "rent-an-axe" for government hater Gov. Bruce Rauner in Illinois, who sowed chaos in part by holding the higher ed budget hostage for months at a time.”

Do more with less” as applied to higher education is a fundamentally unserious statement, particularly in a time when institutions are expected to do more than ever (ex. mental health counseling), while costs of the things they’ve always done (provide healthcare to employees) continue to rise. In reality, when politicians or administrators say we’re going to “do more with less,” they mean individual laborers will be doing more, often for less pay.

At some point, doing more with less bumps up against the inevitable reality that you’re simply not doing the job anymore. Something must be sacrificed in the process, one way or another. In many cases it’s the health and well-being of the laborers themselves, but the compromises at the institutional level are readily apparent as well.

On the other hand, not being all things to all people has the benefit of at least existing in the realm of possibility. Unlike “do more with less,” it is a recognition that something has to give. Unfortunately, by itself, it does not indicate what the remaining thing is in fact going to be. 

We can’t be all things to all people?

Well, what are you then?

I dunno, but definitely not all things! That much I can tell ya!

Embodying a negative (not all things) is neither inspirational nor particularly actionable when it comes to forging an institutional mission. If we can’t decide what things we aren’t, then others are encouraged to continue to view us as the things they want us to be. This creates a kind of illusion of being all things, depending on what angle you’re looking at. Under this vision, disappointment is inevitable. 

So the question we must ask once it’s decided that an institution cannot be all things to all people is what is it going to be?

Perhaps more important: For whom is it going to be?

I am sorely tempted to do some thinking out loud here, to sketch my vision for what institutions should do and be if they aren’t going to be all things to all people. For example, in my view, if institutions need to tighten their belts, it’s my view that rather than chasing programs dedicated to job training like, for example, supply chain management, they’re better off consolidating around the academic core of a generation ago when today’s most popular degree (business) didn’t yet exist. At the least give students an education so they can make the most of the training that will come later is my view.

But before I go further, I think this is a case where I’d rather just shut up first and listen to what other people may be thinking about this question based on their own perspectives.

While I will not lay out the rest of my vision, I will share some of the current lay of the higher educational land that guides my thinking on what institutions should try to be.[2]

  • A majority of faculty are contingent. 
  • Two in three college graduates finish with student loan debt that averages nearly $30,000. Aggregate student loan debt is more than $1.5 trillion
  • A year’s tuition at the school I graduated from in 1992 (University of Illinois) could be paid with 15 weeks of minimum wage work at the time. It now takes more than 50 weeks of minimum wage work to pay a year’s tuition at the same school.
  • Almost half of all education revenue at public institutions comes from student tuition. In 28 states, it’s more than half. Student tuition provides significantly more revenue than state contributions.
  • Based on available demographic data, the number of traditional college-age students will fall by more than 15% after the year 2025. 

It’s likely each of you brings your own frames of reference to the problem of what higher education is going to be. I encourage you to add your concerns to my list below. What balls should we have our eye on as we move into the realm of being not all things.

We often have lively and contentious (in both good and bad ways) in the comments. I’m hoping something like that can happen now.

If a college can’t be all things to all people, what should it be?

 

 

[1]I recommend UW Struggle: When a State Attacks Its University by Chuck Rybak of UW-Green Bay for a penetrating inside account of what it looks like at the on-the-ground level when a government so directly wounds 

an institution. 

[2]Not laying out my vision will also keep me from feeling compelled to defend it if others challenge it in the comments. This way, any of my comments in the contributions can be focused on clarifying any questions I may have about someone else’s particular vision without needing to juxtapose it to my own. 

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