In last week’s blog, I talked about the importance of remembering key individuals in the history of an institution. Remembering key events and how those events happened is also critical and here, too, higher education doesn’t do well. All too often key events are mentioned briefly and clinically only in Board of Trustees’ minutes and in more detail, but often with substantial inaccuracy, in student newspapers.
Two examples come immediately to my mind. A number of years ago, I decided to recommend that Hofstra establish a School of Communication. We had strong majors in this area but Communication wasn’t receiving the time, attention, or the resources it needed as part of our liberal arts college. Our President at the time was supportive and was, in fact, willing to make the recommendation immediately to our Board of Trustees. Following this route, we could have a new school immediately. I suggested instead, that we go through the entire shared governance process feeling that for the school to have faculty support required their investment in the process. We did go through this process and it was a grueling two year effort with unfortunately too much time spent on attempted turf protection by some of those favoring the status quo. But at the end of the day, we had our School of Communication and given the process we followed, very substantial faculty support. Now how has this process been memorialized on our campus? Very briefly is the best answer. A two year effort resulted in a University Senate resolution, a Faculty resolution, a student newspaper article, and a President’s report to the Board of Trustees approving establishment of the School. Details were almost non-existent; nuances were missing in action; and different positions taken were glossed over. No doubt this was helpful to fostering a sense, going forward, of collegiality. But if we are to learn from the past, the information must be there to learn from.
Much more recently, when our new president took office, he made an almost immediate courageous decision that will help the institution for decades to come. That decision was to not build a $50 million plus performing arts center. This arts center was not designed to serve our students. It would not provide us with music rehearsal space or dance studios or any other academic facilities. Rather it was to be a professional arts and entertainment venue that would possibly run a deficit yearly in the millions of dollars in addition to the millions that would be spent yearly to cover the cost of construction. Clearly the performing arts are very important and we have a robust educational program and quality venues and facilities in support of that program. And professional performances are a valuable resource for the community but they are certainly not mission critical for the University. And the costs involved in the arts center would have diverted resources and attention from what was mission critical, the best possible education for our students. Our new president’s decision was enormously popular with the faculty, but received very little attention in our student newspaper and a relatively brief mention in our Trustee minutes. A defining decision for the institution and yet there was hardly a recorded history mention.
We know that every institution has defining events and yet we can be equally certain that the history of these events is often relegated to minimal mention. In understanding an institution, we need to know what happened when and why and how. A brief mention records the event but the full meaning and impact may be lost for all time. For institutions as well as for our students, there is value in a history requirement.