Recently, while doing some Internet research on the curriculum of programs that might compete with ours, I found myself on a Web site that refers prospective students to a variety of online degree programs. I won’t use its real name here, and will instead call it COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, but you’ve probably seen the services of entities like this when you use search engines. Since this was not what I was looking for, I closed the browser window, only to be offered the chance to chat about my educational and professional goals with a “live agent:” “Wait! A live agent is here to assist you with any questions you might have about online universities.” I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for free advice. Here is the full transcript of that conversation with the purportedly live agent, the epicene-named Morgan:
Morgan: Hey wait! We hate to see you leave! It only takes a minute to fill out our simple form, and you'll receive information about degree programs designed to meet your needs as a working adult. CLICK HERE to return.
Morgan: Just type 'HI' or 'Hello' in the space below to let me know you are there.
Me: Hi Morgan. I'm hoping you can help me.
Morgan: Hi, thanks for chatting with me.... to return to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM, just CLICK HERE.
Morgan: E-learning is driven by student-centered learning-so you get to decide how you work best.
Me: Do you have those degrees where you just pay your money and get your Ph.D.?
Morgan: Maybe you want to study at the same time each day for a set time. Maybe you need the support of other students via online forums and e-mail.
Me: That's not exactly what I asked.
Me: What programs can I do online?
Morgan: We have the following major categories of degree available: Business, Criminal Justice, Culinary Arts, Teaching, Engineering, Graphic Design, Healthcare, Hospitality Management, Legal/Paralegal, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Religious Studies, Science and Math, Technology.
Me: Culinary Arts? How do you teach cooking online?
Morgan: Earn your degree while you work. Distance learning is tailor made for busy working adult [sic]. You can now study on your own time, at your own pace, and out of the convenience of your own home.
Me: What e-learning platforms do you use?
Morgan: If you want a career in the culinary world, a formal education is the ideal way to get started. CLICK HERE to see all Culinary Degrees.
Me: Is there a hands-on component to the culinary arts degree?
Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated. Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.
Me: I have a lot of questions--please try to keep up.
Morgan: Can I provide you with a link back to COLLEGEFORNOTHING.COM?
Morgan: This whole process is quick and easy to get going, so why not start right now?
Morgan: Discover the best way to pay for your online education. Our search service will find the schools that fit your needs.
Me: No, I have specific programmatic questions that you're not addressing.
Me: Can I just give you some money and you'll give me a degree?
Morgan: I'll try my best to answer your question. If the question is regarding a specific degree program or school, please fill out a short form for that school.
Me: Also, what religions are covered in religious studies?
Morgan: Remember if you looking to advance your education and jump-start your career then let us give you FREE college information! CLICK HERE to return.
Me: Can I become a minister?
Morgan: A religious studies degree program, whatever its focus, has the purpose of intellectually challenging its students -- of guiding you in the study of the diverse tenets and traditions of faith around the globe. As the world grows, so does the need and opportunity for the study of religion. CLICK HERE to see all Religious Studies Degrees.
Me: This has been illuminating--I hope the faculty is as well informed.
Me: Thank you for all your help.
Morgan: The process is short, simple, and free, and an enrollment advisor from the school will be better able to answer your specific questions and find the perfect degree program for you. CLICK HERE to get started or ask away.
Morgan: You're very welcome :)
Me: I feel I have the tools to take the next step in my educational journey.
Morgan: Or maybe you find you can really express yourself using chat boards and instant messaging, whereas you were too shy to speak up in a classroom.
Me: You're a great counselor -- can I hire you away from your job?
Morgan: With technology and current events constantly changing, college textbooks become quickly outdated.
Morgan: No this is not a scam. We have helped out many people in the past, let us help you out!
Morgan: Online education has the advantage -- it's constantly on the cutting edge. For students and teachers alike, the Internet is their resource.
Morgan: Simply CLICK HERE to get started!
I decided to share this transcript because it would be perfect for this time of year as we wade through piles of papers to grade. But I leave more troubled than amused. In our online world, how many prospective students are reassured, comforted or directed by Morgan’s college advising?
Jonathan Deutsch is assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.
At U of All People, Dr. Henry Fenton rose from humble instructor to professor of sociology, then to dean of liberal arts and finally to assistant provost, before retiring. Somewhere in the late '80s, he converted to Buddhism, noting that all higher education was an illusion. His style of administration exuded great calm and judgment and was admired by all except the faculty, the staff and the students. A cardboard plaque outside his former office, paid for by anonymous sources, reads “Zen and Now.”
Many on campus who knew the doctor cherish a signal event that touched them, such as the Writing of the Great Memo, which stretched from 1995 to 1999, or the Task Force of Enlightenment, which concluded that all the issues on its agenda would take ten thousand lifetimes to fix. Others recall the doctor’s dung-colored robe that was given to him by a visiting dean from Tibet, or the "Out" box on Fenton’s desk marked “satori” that was always, miraculously, empty. “Existence is suffering,” he would often intone, “but at least we’re better off than at a state university.” Even those who didn’t care for Dr. Fenton’s ways believe that he raised the art of administration to such heights, it appeared as if he were doing nothing at all.
Once, when inaugurating the construction of a new parking lot by symbolically wielding the first shovelful of dirt, he was asked by a lowly assistant professor, “Tell me, Dr. Fenton, how do you know where to start?”
The doctor scratched his head, looked into the middle distance, and smiled. “Any place where more parking is created will be welcome,” he replied. And with that, he heaved a clod of dirt into the assistant professor’s open briefcase. The assistant professor did not receive tenure, but the parking lot, now named the Henry Fenton Lot of Plenty, is revered by all who park there.
The following are some of Dr. Fenton’s more famous administrative maxims:
What is the sound of a committee with no one serving on it?
Start a study before there’s anything to look at.
Email circles endlessly in the ether.
Tenure cannot outlast death.
Before a meeting of the minds, one must have many prior meetings.
Every spring, the students return to Cancun.
Listen for the session inside the intersession: it is the sound of money.
While the faculty sleep, the pink butterfly wins the grant.
All budgets are an illusion.
To administer from home: this is contentment.
If we do not give ourselves raises, who will?
Walking along the path of rightness, here comes the provost.
Every graduation, the quad needs re-sodding.
The building of buildings acquires greater merit than the increase of faculty salaries.
Graduation is the beginning of all fund raising.
New curricula, new problems.
We are all disciples of the chancellor.
Academic scandals pass, and new ones take their place.
The wisdom of Miyazaki-sensei is useless unless he publishes his research.
Dean Ueda finally hung up on the irate alumna. The silence filled his office like a balm of nectar.
The Dean of Student Affairs is not what you think.
One foot in administration is two feet inside.
The art of saying no also involves saying yes and maybe.
The university is a universe unless it loses its accreditation.
Even a large donation cannot buy happiness. It can, however, purchase a new athletic facility.
David Galef is a professor of English and former administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.
Submitted by Rob Weir on January 17, 2008 - 4:00am
Academic squabbles are often compared to cat fights, but as one who has owned cats for several decades, I’ve come to believe that such analogies are unfair to felines. Cats, for instance, instinctively know to terminate a chase when they would consume more calories than their prey would provide. And even the pugilist tabbies I’ve owned eventually learned to give wide berth to rivals who consistently bloodied them. All of this suggests that cats may be more evolutionarily advanced than a lot of academics. In the spirit of all those What I Learned from My Cat books now moldering on remainder shelves, here are eight academic debates left over from last year that aren’t worth the calories, let along the anguish.
1. What Do We Do About Poorly Prepared Incoming Students? How about teach them? It seems like I’ve been hearing the same tape loop since I was 18 and was told my generation was ignoramus-ridden because it had no training in Latin. Let’s just admit that each generation comes to the table with different skill sets and move on. This is the ultimate lost chase. What students ought to know is irrelevant when faced with a classroom of those who don’t know it.
2. The Great Books versus Multicultural Readings: This is another tired horse ready for pasturage. We’ve been fighting over the canon for so long that it has escaped the debaters’ notice that the passion for books has fallen from fashion. I, for one, am grateful when students read anything and get excited. If they want to declare Neil Gaiman graphic novels part of the canon, that’s fine with me if it helps us talk about myth, archetypes, and culture.
3. Should the Academy Operate According to a Consumer Model? If you answered “no,” prepare to be boarded; your ship has been vanquished. The high price tag of higher ed makes it a market-place commodity and it’s as naïve to assert that a college education is its own reward as to believe that the Olympics are a still bastion of amateurism. Whether we like it or not, kids shop for courses just like they hit the mall. Profs and departments can assume the crusty purist’s demeanor, or they can start making course offerings jazzier and sexier. The latter path leads to the vitality, the first to extinction. If you don’t believe it, ask a classicist or a labor historian.
4. Why Should Faculty Be Forced to Be Tech-Savvy? Because it’s the 21st century, we’re educators, and we need to communicate with students. Every campus has a few cranks who wear electronic illiteracy as a badge of honor. They walk about in crumpled garb, wax eloquent about the glories of their old Olivetti, and brag they don’t use e-mail. The rest of us tolerate them as if they were an eccentric aunt, and defend them when students grouse about them. Here’s a better idea: Give students the e-mail addresses of the department chair and the academic dean. Just in case they wish to register their complaints.
5. Should Colleges Be Required to Dip Deeper into Endowment Funds? Yes, but this debate is really not worth having as the future is clear: Either everyone will follow the preemptive lead of those well-endowed schools that have begun spending a higher percentage of their endowment, or Congress will act and impose the same 5 percent standard with which foundations must comply.
6. How Can We Improve Our 'U.S. News & World Report' Rating? Unless you’re a member of an embattled admissions department, who cares? The battle worth fighting would be a campaign to put all such Miss Congeniality-modeled guides out of business. I’d happily don armor for a federated effort to do that.
7. Are Campus Conservatives the Victim of Discrimination? Does anyone have any spare crocodile tears for the group that pretty much runs the country? What a silly debate. There’s a difference between being a minority and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between free speech and the guarantee that others will agree with you. When stripped to its basics the brief is that neo-cons feel uncomfortable in places like Amherst, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison. Well, duh! That’s like a vegetarian complaining about the menu at a Ponderosa Steakhouse. Oddly enough, one seldom hears pleas for more feminists at faith-based institutions, pacifists at military academies, or evolutionary scientists on the Mike Huckabee campaign staff.
8. Ward Churchill or David Horowitz? Neither please! If nothing else, can we resolve that in 2008 we will uphold the principle that propaganda of any sort has no place in the college classroom? That would also solve the conservative complaint above. Best of all, it would relegate the boorish Churchill and Horowitz to the obscurity they have so richly earned.
Everyone altogether now: Meow!
Rob Weir is the author or editor of five books. He recently gave up a senior faculty position to pursue part-time teaching, involvement with professional organizations, and freelance journalism.
In his Journals, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted a hotel’s faded elegance: “[T]he lobby is filled with tieless men wearing double-knit trousers.”
Tielessness: a bad sign everywhere.
Professors, it's been said, are the worst-dressed middle-class occupational group in America. Instead of being role models, we’ve convinced everyone to slum. As clothing theorist Nicholas Antongiavanni explains in The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style, “[M]any came to believe the protestation of academics that taste was nothing but a fraud perpetrated by the great to keep down the people.
It was not always so. In the academic golden age, outliers who refused to follow high standards were viewed with disdain. Edward Larson describes a law professor who, after being fired, represented Scopes in the 1925 monkey trial. John Randolph Neal could walk into a faculty lounge today and, without having evolved a bit, fit right in:
Neal never spent much time on campus -- often arriving late, if at all, for class, devoting class time to rambling lectures about current political issues rather than to the course subject matter, and giving all his law students a grade of 95 without reading their exams. The dean also complained about Neal’s “slovenly” dress, which later deteriorated into complete disregard for personal appearance and cleanliness.
At the trial, “[u]nwashed and unshaven as usual, [Neal] lectured the court in a manner reminiscent of his chaotic teaching style.”
During Paul Fussell’s teaching career, “practically compulsory was the daily get-up of gray flannel trousers and tweed jacket, often, of course, with leather elbow patches, suggestive at once of two honorable conditions: poverty and learning," according to Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. When tweed was no longer boss, however, scruffiness became the standard. At Tom Wolfe’s Dupont University, “the current fashion among male professors ... was scrupulously improper cheap-looking shirts, open at the throat, ... and cotton pants with no creases -- jeans, khakis, corduroys -- to distinguish themselves from the mob, which is to say, the middle class.”
If we’re going to have a dress code anyway, we should be able to do better than “scrupulously improper.” I therefore propose a Uniform Uniform Code (a lawyers joke -- sorry) for professors. My effort to change clothes might not be fully successful, but there’s hope. As Michael Bérubé says, “[D]ressing fashionably in academia is like clearing the four-foot high jump. The bar is not that high.”
I. The Childlike Professoriate
Why the dress problem? Professors might be grown-ups chronologically, but, if you’ve attended faculty meetings, you know we haven’t gotten the behavior patterns right. Joseph Epstein writes:
One of the divisions of the contemporary world is between those who are prepared to dress (roughly) their age and those who see clothes as a means to fight off age.... I know of associate deans who never wear neckties. Others -- balding, paunchy, droopy-lidded -- have not had a fabric other than denim touch their hindquarters for decades. They, poor dears, believe they are staying young.
Roger Kimball adds, “There is something about the combination of denim and tenure that is inherently preposterous.”
Trying to look like students is partly self-denial, but scruffily dressed faculty also have highfalutin goals. Some sartorial underachievement is aimed at furthering a "nurturing" atmosphere. The classroom setting should be non-confrontational, it’s argued, with professors and students hangin’ out as buddies.
But it doesn’t work, except perhaps for sexual poaching. Radical economist Bob Lamb discovered “that if I buy my suits at Brooks Brothers and look like a banker, it is much easier to get Harvard students to believe what I am telling them.” Bonding is nice only if you don’t expect intellectual activity.
Dress once represented a quest for excellence, not leveling, as Donald Kagan noted in a paean to Joltin’ Joe:
[H]is day was not ours. America was a democracy, but of a different kind. Its people were more respectful of excellence, both of matter and manner . . . . People wanted to behave according to a higher and better code because they believed that in doing so they would themselves become better, worthier, “classier.” Those who are too young to remember should look at the movies and photographs of games at Yankee Stadium in DiMaggio’s day. The men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game.
Russell Baker thinks the shift to shiftlessness occurred in the 1960s:
People [then] had so much money that they could afford to look poor. Men quit wearing fedoras and three-piece suits to Yankee Stadium and affected a hobo chic -- all whiskers and no creases. Women quit buying hats and high-heeled shoes and started swearing like Marine sergeants.
People generally act better when they’re dressed right. If a professor is sending a signal of seriousness, of civility, students will pick it up. I defer to no one in admiring the Marines, but the world is not a better place when everyone is swearing like a Marine sergeant and dressing in hobo chic.
II. The Code
Here’s a draft Uniform Uniform Code:
Faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.
That’s it. Brevity works. Unlike good clothing, a statute can’t cover everything.
Anyway, this is just a draft: Maybe your mother is better than mine for this purpose; the phrase “my mother” probably doesn’t work for a statute of general application; perhaps the key age for mothers should be 70 (80?). Whatever figure is used, it will have to be adjusted periodically to capture changes (downward) in mothers’ (other than my mother’s) standards.
So change what you wish, and then interpret the UUC reasonably. When in doubt about appropriate dress, check what people used to wear: it’s usually safe, as Arthur Benson noted, to dress in the “style-before-last.” For men, Fussell’s default rule works: “You can’t go wrong with the classic navy blue blazer and khakis.”
Sanctions for violators? I guess not. I’d like to take ‘em to the cleaners, but you’d wind up with idiots charging breaches of academic freedom. At a minimum, however, violators ought to be dressed down in public for dressing down in public.
III. The Tie
Are ties that important?
For men, yes. The tie is important because it’s always been important; its importance makes it important. You don’t change norms without good reasons for doing so.
Ties show seriousness -- respect for the subject, the students, and oneself (whether or not you really respect any of them). Fussell says ties “serve no purpose except vanity,” but striking a blow for civilization is a good purpose.
IV. Conceptual Difficulties
Skeptics of my project -- all poorly dressed -- see this as hopeless. I’ll deal with a few criticisms.
How, skeptics say, can I draft a uniform uniform code? Isn’t it inevitable that appropriate dress for the fruited plains will be different from that for the purple mountains?
Of course. When Florida professors teach in Maine, their dress should meet Maine standards and vice-versa.
That doesn’t mean anything goes. A flannel suit might not work in Florida in August, but shorts and sandals don’t therefore become de rigeur. Moms know how to dress in Maine and Florida and so should you.
B. The Sex Question
We have a sense of appropriate menswear -- Jeffrey Hart wrote that “any male professor who comes to class without a jacket and tie should be regarded with extreme prejudice unless he has won a Nobel Prize”” -- but this isn’t a males-only profession anymore. Who’s to say how the Hart principle should apply to women?
Me. The rule that applies is the feminine equivalent of the standard for men. Ask female associates at one of the Wall Street firms that haven’t succumbed to perpetual casual day whether there’s uncertainty about appropriate dress. They might not like it, but they know what to wear.
Are pants acceptable? Of course, in the right climate at the right time. Color of suit? It depends on what you’re doing. Ask your mother.
Besides, women profs have a style-guide, Emily Toth’s Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Some of Ms. Mentor’s more important standards are
1. Avoid poufy sleeves. 2. Dress frumpily. 3. Act like an old fart.
All good advice, and about all you need to know.
C. Outside Class
Maybe it should matter that a professor will not be teaching on a particular day. I’ll take this issue -- is class reserved for class -- under advisement, but the guiding consideration is: You’re a professional; dress accordingly. (I’m certainly willing to grant exemptions for anthropologists in the rain forest and sociologists going undercover.)
D. The Dissidents and the Tasteless
Skeptics note that some folks will flout any rules. If coat and tie are required, dissidents will break the code’s spirit by wearing CAT with shorts and sandals. You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
And some will observe the letter of rules but with taste (or mother’s taste) that is unbelievably bad. Is any tie good enough? What about an iridescent green suit that whispers Chernobyl? Or suppose otherwise acceptable attire is covered with food that the academic, focused on the world’s intellectual work, is oblivious to. Rules are rules, but in enforcing them we should be sensitive to the feelings of those who are severely disturbed.
V. Political Over- and Undertones
Oh, I hear you say: Here’s another political reactionary (true enough) trying to impose his views on nonbelievers.
Well, others have a sense of propriety too. Ralph Nader dresses conservatively. The Green Party convention may have been a gathering of the Birkenstock brigades, but you almost never see Nader out of his gray suit, white shirt, and tie. Nader wants to be taken seriously, and so should you. There is a political component to this. Jay Parini defends F.R. Leavis, who “made a name for himself by refusing to wear a tie at Cambridge.”
Leavis meant to appear intellectually isolated, but he was also advertising his leftism. That was desirable, says Parini, because “[t]eaching is, after all, a performance art.” Students find clues to “our attitudes toward the world, even our politics, in the styles we assume.... It pays to think of clothing as a rhetorical choice, and to dress accordingly.”
The rhetorical choice is why professors should dress in boringly similar, tasteful ways. By following the UUC, we limit the extent to which students speculate about us rather than study. Parini might want students pondering his politics -- an easy task -- but I don’t want mine ponderously pondering mine.
***** Does any of this matter? Richard Posner, who can hide suspect attire under judicial robes, ridicules Jacques Barzun, who had written that “[t]o appear unkempt, undressed, and for perfection unwashed, is the key signature of the whole age”: “This is absurd, and not only because Americans, however casually they dress, remain fanatical about hygiene. It is absurd in its insistence that every change in culture, even so mutable an aspect of culture as the dress code, is fraught with menace.”
And, Posner wonders, a decline from what?
[M]ost declinists at least specify a benchmark. But it is difficult even to identify the golden age of formal dress. . . . Are coat and tie formality enough? Or must the soft collar give way to the stiff detachable collar, or perhaps to the ruff? Must women wear corsets, and must men dress (that is, put on a tuxedo) for dinner?
The judge gets the crowd snickering with his riff on the ruff, but he stretches his point beyond Spandex’s limits. Any well-dressed freshman should question Posner’s premise that, just because we can’t draw a bright line, no distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable are possible.
At a minimum, I hope we can agree on one thing: Teaching is a thongless task.
Erik M. Jensen
Erik M. Jensen is the David L. Brennan Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. This essay is adapted from "Law School Attire: A Call for a Uniform Uniform Code," from the Oklahoma City University Law Review.
At U of All People, we know a good thing when we smell it, and for a while we’ve envied other schools with lucrative foreign study programs in Paris and London so that students can learn French and English -- whereas all we have is a short-term exchange with the School of Applied Mechanics in Dumsk.
We’d like to change all that now, after hiring a new dean of liberal arts whose idea of travel stretches beyond Chicago, but apparently study abroad programs have grown so common, not to mention lucrative, that they poach students from each other. Got $7,500 to plunk down for a three-week biology course in the Galapagos (does not include cruise stateroom and snorkeling fees)? If so, we want your business and are willing to fight for it. Here’s what we’re prepared to offer:
Tired of being shut in seminar rooms for half the day while outside lies all of Seville, honking its horns? Try our open-air classes, which can take place anywhere from the top of a double-decker bus to a row of spread blankets on the beach. Catch a wave, check out that cute señorita, and discover the meaning of serendipitous learning!
Three months just to learn Italian verbs? Dud-io, get real! At U of All People, we understand that speaking a foreign language isn’t just about vocabulary but about absorbing the syntax of the culture. We offer restaurant Italian, club-hopping Italian, intimate Italian, and more! Let’s face it: do you want to know how to conjugate andare, or have a really good handle on the difference between spumante and gelato?
“All the comforts of home” may be a cliché, but it’s one we subscribe to. And that means we guarantee you dorm-style rooms wherever you go, special pizza and burger cafés, laptops and cell phones always available, and multiple ATM’s in every location. Got a craving for that favorite form of caffeine buzz back in the States? Our 24-hour courier service can obtain it for you at surprisingly unreasonable rates.
Scared of the tough Parisian prof who speaks an incomprehensible urban patois in between drags on his Gauloise? Worried about the grades you might get away from your coddling home institution? We’ve solved that problem by using hand-picked faculty from U of All People, professors just dying to go to overseas and therefore willing to jettison all professional standards. Check out teachers like “Doc” Munsey, the lit prof whose motto is “ A all the Way, from Paris to Calais!”
And speaking of courses, we’re creative in that area, too! We offer classes that are stimulating without being too consuming, enabling you to devote quality (and quantity) time to what really counts: checking out the action in the local bars. Here are some sample offerings for our upcoming spring semester in Prague: Shakespeare in Slavic Films, An Introduction to the Museums in Prague, and Emergency Czech.
If you (or your parents funding this boondoggle) still need more convincing, here are some more incentives:
Bad ear for languages? Nyet problema: in English, no problem! Many of our courses demand no contact with the natives, who hate America anyway, and for an additional fee, you can be accompanied by an interpreter wherever you travel.
Strapped for time? We offer terms as short as ten days—no, a week—no, three days—for those who have to get back to the States for that all-important frat party or charity fun race. You can learn a lot in a short space, especially if you don’t sleep.
Skirting academic failure and just want some time away? Our not-so-stringent requirements will make you smile, starting at a 2.0 GPA and only 10 credits already under your belt.
As for money, all tuition and fees may be paid on an equity basis to be arranged between you and your mortgage lender. We’re currently working on an indentured servant contract as an alternate route to payment.
So don’t delay -- check out what’s happening at U of All People Abroad today! Our new motto is “Going global!” and it’ll be true as soon as soon as we can work out those pesky visa arrangements.
David Galef is a professor of English in transition from the University of Mississippi to Montclair State University. His latest book is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.
Faculty, community members, students and families arrived by snow machine, plane, or dog sled, or walked across frozen seas from surrounding villages. This is graduation in the Arctic at Chukchi campus, the northernmost branch in the University of Alaska System. Today, at commencement, it is a sunny and crisp 33 degrees. Younger residents don T-shirts and shorts.
Chukchi is situated in a place unimagined by most in higher education. The college, in Kotzebue, a settlement of 3,000 people, clings stubbornly to a gravel outcrop on the edge of the Chukchi Sea, where flat snow-covered tundra meets icy waters. Kotzebue is accessible by boat or air during three summer months; and by air, snow machine and sled in the winter.
Residents, students, and faculty live peacefully without ordinary facilities such as a dry cleaner, saloons, discos, or a car dealership. There are more snow machines and dogs than cars in Kotzebue. The town includes an airstrip for bush pilots. People headed to the landfill must pause for incoming and outgoing planes the way most students in America pause at a stop sign, looking for approaching vehicles. An itinerant hairdresser visits once each month and folks desiring a haircut schedule appointments. Only in late June and July are seagoing barges able to deliver gasoline. The price per gallon, nearly $6, remains until gas is delivered again this summer. Gas prices are expected to jump several dollars this July.
Life’s daily rituals and conveniences are all more extreme in the Arctic.
Kotzebue was founded in the late 1800s by the German Lt. Otto Von Kotzebue, sailing under the Russian flag. For 600 years the Inupiat Native occupied the area, trading ivory, baleen, various skins, wool, beads, bone tools and baskets with interior Natives and ocean visitors. As Russian traders and New England whalers introduced alcohol, firearms and disease during the 18th and 19th centuries, culture and commerce took a different turn.
Well-meaning missionaries, who endeavored to convince the “heathen” they were devil worshippers, also arrived. One legacy of exploration in the Arctic is, sadly, reflected in low rates of educational achievement for young men, and high rates of suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence, all problems that have been acknowledged by the elders and Alaska native leaders.
Graduation and commencement are celebratory as they are throughout the United States. There is great pride in finishing degrees. Chukchi campus also serves villages in the surrounding areas, through distance education programs. Students earn associate degrees, bachelor's and master's degrees.
The University of Alaska system is one of the few institutions that reaches inhabitants in rural and remote regions of the Arctic. UA scholars also engage in high-quality research on climate change, sustainable energy sources, high-latitude agriculture and in many other fields. On this day there are 20 hours of sunlight. Soon the sun will stay above the horizon for nearly a month; a far cry from winter, where, for a month or so, the suns rays rarely break the horizon, darkness prevails and temperatures sometimes drop to 100 degrees below zero. Residents are primarily Inupiat, joined by people of Asian, Siberian Yupik and Caucasian descent. Many are presently hunting waterfowl, seals and whales. For commencement, we are welcomed with muktuk, a specially cut section of whale blubber and skin -- a prized delicacy here.
On the graduation platform, as caribou meander outside, each graduate tells a story, each becoming a commencement speaker. Some depict amazing journeys through time and distance. Words are also spoken by students born into a U.S. territory, prior to Alaska statehood in 1959. There are palpable signs of relief and joy about obtaining degrees, even as the changing physical environment forebodes a warning more immediate than the tight job market.
Polar bears are moving south and inland in search of food, one apparent result of the shrinking sea ice. Tell the whale and walrus hunter that global warming is untrue or overstated and risk a reaction of confused or mournful anger. In the Arctic, the debate on climate change loses its polemical steam. Seas are opening, temperatures are rising, glaciers are retreating, villages and languages are disappearing. Whether present conditions result from anthropogenic influences, or Earth’s natural cycles, is of little consequence.
The graduation story at Chukchi is similar to what has occurred in America over the last 250 years. Alaska is the newest end point of an engaging American story. After all, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, like Kotzebue, were wilderness towns, claimed for their economic potential by European monarchs and the Dutch West India Company, the first multinational corporation. Resources were taken out of Colonial America; public policy was dictated by powerful external corporate entities.
The history of the U.S., like Alaska, has been a triumph of local control and self rule over benevolent outsiders. People came to Alaska to be free, to escape prejudice and conformity, to transcend the icy stares of those who admonish us to fit in and lament our lack of qualifications to do so. Others were brought as slaves. Indigenous peoples suffered tragically as history repeats itself.
Alaska today remains a place where dreams are made through hard work and second chances. Kotzebue itself is a town that encourages people to start anew, to conquer adversity, and to strike out in ways not normally accepted.
Which brings me to my topic this commencement; the triumph of the human spirit in extreme places. Extremes nourish the creative spirit. Indeed, extremes on the frontier underpin the most essential traits in the American character: restless inquisitiveness, exuberant confidence, a masterful grasp of the practical, pragmatism, an acute sense of destiny.
Through adaptation and resilience, we overcome personal and physical challenges. We change the future by changing ourselves in the present. An extreme place is the common denominator. Inevitably extreme places sustain different life styles, new businesses and ideas. Alaska is a creative place. I am certain this trait is linked to a highly competitive environment where life’s essentials, shelter, food and community are hard won and cannot be taken for granted.
Commencement at Chukchi represents the possibility of a new beginning. Life can be lonely and harsh, but it is precisely the juxtaposition of challenge, opportunity and freedom that draws us here. In extreme situations can we learn to live in harmony or test our potential as human beings.
Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System of Higher Education.
Raymond leaned back in his desk chair and let out a deep sigh. He was beginning to accept the fact that he wouldn't find a job this go-round. He reached into the bottom left drawer of his darkly patinated, sturdy old wooden desk and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey. He poured two fingers of his familiar solace into an unwashed coffee mug, and surveyed his future.
It was already April. He could easily defend his dissertation and officially receive his Ph.D. this spring if he wanted to. But since it didn't look like he was getting any job as a real professor, it might be a better strategy to wait and graduate next fall or spring. Some schools might look askance at his job applications next year if he had unaccounted-for post-Ph.D. time on his vitae. And, lord knows, schools were all too eager to find any perceived imperfection. It helped them weed out some of the hundreds of applications they received from the hordes of jobless Ph.D.'s. So, he decided, he shouldn't officially get the degree yet, unless something developed quickly on the employment front.
But what would he do next year? He'd been a graduate student for seven years, and, barring some last minute need for an emergency replacement, his department wasn't going to give him another teaching assignment. He just might get part-time teaching work at one of the several universities in the area, but there were no guarantees. He might well end up working at a grocery store, or a bar, or, if things went really badly, at a convenience store or fast food place. He shuddered, thinking of the injustice of one of the bright young minds in his field selling beer and cigarettes to the scum of the earth, or asking some imbecile if he wanted fries with his order.
Raymond stared out the window of his office for a few minutes, morosely sipping his whiskey and imagining the very worst possible scenarios.
When he turned back to his computer, he was surprised to find a job listing glowing on the screen with what seemed to be an unusual luminosity. It was all the more peculiar since he was sure he'd turned off the computer before pouring his drink. Yet there it was.
Job Listing #666. University of Hell at Seventh Circle. Visiting Assistant Professor, two years (with possibility of converting to tenure-track position at culmination of two-year appointment). Beginning September 2009. Teaching load of forty-three courses per semester, with no more than thirty-nine preparations (i.e. instructor will teach more than one section of some courses). No official committee duties, but will be expected to contribute occasionally to departmental administrative work. Competitive salary, given local economy. Candidate must exhibit evidence of strong potential for both research and teaching, and significant flexibility in his/her expectations. For further information, repeat the name “Mizrakreth, Chair of Hiring Committee” three times.
Raymond stroked his chin thoughtfully. After a minute he began chanting “Mizrakreth...” After all, it couldn't hurt just to get a bit more information.
Patrick looked up at Raymond. “What do you mean, 'University of Hell?'”
“You know, Hell. They apparently have some colleges down there.”
Patrick took his feet off the chair that students used when they visited during office hours, then kicked the chair a few inches and nodded at it, as an invitation to sit. “So your question is whether I think you should apply for a job in Hell?”
“Yes, right,” Raymond said, seating himself.
“Hell, the site of eternal torment for the souls of the damned.”
“Given that particular description of the place, an obvious answer seems to suggest itself.”
“No, come on. Seriously.”
“Do you have some reason to think that I'm not being serious when I recommend that you not freely choose to enter Hell?” Patrick asked.
“I know, I know, I dismissed it too at first. But put aside your preconceptions for a minute.”
“They're pretty deeply ingrained.”
Raymond ignored the comment, and explained, “Sure, it's Hell. And that's a minus. But at least it's an academic job. I mean, yes, there's the damnation and torment aspect, but at least I won't have wasted the last seven years of my life. I'll be using my education, you know?”
Patrick scratched at a spot in the middle of his forehead, and slightly scrunched his face. “How can I express this? You seem not to be recognizing something ... this is ... it's, it's HELL! People don't want to go to Hell! Very significant numbers of people restructure their entire lives so as to avoid going to this very place that you're eagerly traipsing off to! Are you crazy?”
Raymond's neck and cheeks flushed slightly. “Sure, you can afford to be a snob, with your job already in the bag. We can't all get cushy, hot shot jobs like yours,” he said, rising from the chair. “Excuse me for not living up to your lofty standards.”
Patrick held his hands out, palms up, and said, “What are you talking about? I got a one-year job at Eastern South Dakota State College. I have to teach four courses a semester. It'll be hell!”
Raymond bit his lower lip.
Patrick cleared his throat, “Uh, not literally Hell, of course. Sorry.”
In the silence that followed, Raymond reseated himself. Staring at the floor, he said, “I guess four courses a term is a lot, compared to some places.”
“And, ah, what's the teaching load in Hell?” Patrick asked.
“It's pretty heavy.”
“More than four?”
“More than five? Ray, how many courses do you have to teach?”
“Thirty-something, forty-something, I forget.”
“Thirty or forty per YEAR?”
“What are you talking about? Raymond, there are some professors who go through an entire, long, fruitful, distinguished career and then retire barely having taught forty classes! It's not humanly possible to teach that many per semester!”
“But it's not that many preps. Mizrakreth said that sometimes you only have to prepare twenty or so courses, then for some of your courses you just teach the same material from the same notes.”
“And Mizrakreth is...?”
“Chair of the hiring committee. A mid-level sub-demon. He seemed pretty upfront about the whole thing. Admitted it was a heavy teaching load, but he pointed out some advantages, too.”
“Well, of course, it is a job in humanities, and you know they're not easy to come by. Besides that, the teaching could be a plus in a way. I'll teach a bunch of different courses, and that can only look good on my vitae. And it sounds like, in recent years, there's more of a trend for people to get good jobs after working a year or two as visiting professors, instead of right out of grad school.”
“So it's a temporary job?”
“Oh, sure. A two-year. I wouldn't want to live there forever. But you have to pay your dues nowadays. And I assume I could leave after just one year if I really don't like it.”
“Does the contract say that?”
“I haven't actually seen the official contract yet. There's a lot of red tape down there, apparently. Mizrakreth said it would probably be okay, we'd have to play it by ear.”
“I'd get it in writing,” Patrick advised. “They might be sticklers.”
Raymond nodded. “Anyway, from what Mizrakreth said, it's not as bad down there as the media makes people think. They've really been working on improving the place.”
“Wouldn't that defeat the whole 'eternal torment' business?”
“Look, a lot of places have worked on being more livable. Cleveland, Pittsburgh,” Raymond said. “Newark, I think.”
“None of which are located in the netherworld per se. Nor designed for the express purpose of providing unremitting agony for the residents. I hardly think Hell is that interested in urban planning, or sprucing things up.” Noticing Raymond's dour look, Patrick softened his tone. “At least don't sign anything until you've visited the campus.”
“That's kind of a problem, actually. They don't have the money to bring people in for on-campus interviews for temporary jobs. If it was a tenure-track job, that'd be a different story. The economy down there hasn't been so good lately.”
“So what's the pay, anyway?”
“Well, Mizrakreth wasn't sure. It's not really his decision. The administration'll decide, based on my experience, etcetera. But he assured me it'll be competitive.”
“Read the fine print, okay?”
A pudgy, youngish man with curly blond hair walked into the room and set his backpack on a desk by the door. “What's up?” he asked.
“Raymond's thinking of applying for a job in Hell,” Patrick answered.
The pudgy man paused, looking at their faces to see if they were joking. After a few seconds, he asked, “Tenure track?”
“Naw,” Raymond answered. “Two-year.”
“Those can be rough. You just get settled in, you have to move again.”
“It could be converted to tenure-track after two years, though, if everything works out.”
Patrick raised his hand and said, “Which of course would mean spending more time in Hell.”
“Still,” the pudgy man said, “Tenure-track is tenure-track.”
“Karen, we need to talk,” Raymond said.
He was sitting on her couch, holding the last slice of the pizza they'd ordered. She sat in her favorite chair, nearby. They had just finished watching a syndicated rerun of The Simpsons. Karen turned to look at him, and, as always, he was struck by the intensity of her gaze. It seemed like all illusions would wither under the force of her intelligent, gray eyes. He wondered, not for the first time, if he was crazy to leave her. Though he truly cared about her, he comforted himself with the thought that there'd be other women. What was important right now was not to hurt her any more than was unavoidable.
Setting down his pizza, he asked, “Remember that two-year job I told you I applied for, a week or so ago?”
“Sure. The Hell job.”
“Right.” He hesitated. “They offered it to me, and I think I'm going to take it.”
She nodded slowly.
Raymond continued, thoughtfully, “So, we've talked before about what we'd do if I got a job somewhere. I guess what we decided was that it depended partly on how far away it was and how workable a long-distance relationship would be.”
“And Hell is really far away,” Karen said. “I guess it is, anyway. Is it another dimension, or what?”
“Yeah, a different plane. So, I guess it seems to me that we shouldn't try to keep up a monogamous relationship. In the end, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me. But how do you feel about it?”
“You're right,” she said after thinking a moment. “And it's not like we haven't seen this coming. To be honest, I can't say I'd be that enthusiastic about visiting you down there. I think the best thing is probably to say we don't have any commitments.”
“None at all, you mean?” Raymond asked, then quickly added, “Right, you're right. No commitments. Although it's not as if I have plans to meet a lot of women in Hell or anything. How much dating could there be?” He absently picked up the slice of pizza and took a bite, then added, “I suppose that in Hell in general, there might be some orgies and things, but nothing appealing.”
“Didn't you say it was in the seventh circle of Hell?” Karen asked.
“Right. University of Hell at Seventh Circle.”
Karen slightly shook her head, and said, “Probably no orgies there. Lust, carnal sins, that stuff's supposedly on the earlier levels. Second or third circle, I think.”
“Really? It's all divided up like that?”
“Well, I don't know this. It's just vague memories of stuff I've read. The seventh circle is supposedly for violent criminals, murderers and the like.”
“Also, it's hot. Flaming cinders falling from the sky, river of boiling blood, burning deserts. Again, 'supposedly.' This is all just hearsay.”
Raymond had been chewing his bite of pizza for a long time. Now he swallowed.
Karen put her hand on his reassuringly. “Like I said, this is not reliable information. Maybe it's not like that at all.”
Raymond nodded stoically.
“Do you like succubus?” Karen asked.
“Succubus?” Raymond asked. He tilted his head, and said, “Well, sure, you know I like...”
“No, that's not what 'succubus' means,” Karen said. “They're some kind of female demon. Actually, maybe the plural is 'succubi.' They might be available.”
“I don't know about that,” Raymond said. “But I'm not even thinking about women down there. I'll be so busy teaching, I won't have any free time.”
“The regular women, I mean the damned ones, they'd probably have some complexion problems. You know, blisters, charring. From the heat. If they have bodies at all. Maybe they're not corporeal.”
Raymond sat silently for a while, then picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth.
Karen reached over and squeezed his free hand and said, “Sorry. Let's not talk about it any more.” She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm around his shoulders. “I hope things work out for you, Raymond. I really do.”
Raymond ran into the mouth of the cave to escape the swirling firestorm. Burning flakes of ash had completely ruined his sportcoat. He'd been shielding his pile of syllabuses by hunching over them as he ran, but now they spontaneously burst into flame from the ambient heat. He dropped the syllabuses and blew on his fingers, muttering “Damn!” He quickly looked around, not sure if he might incur some special penalty for saying that word here.
His students were already there waiting for him in the cave/classroom. It didn't look like a promising bunch. There were indeed a great many unpleasant blisters, and various other wounds and scars. Some students were chained to their iron seats, and Raymond could hear and smell their flesh sizzling. They produced small streams of either smoke or steam, which would no doubt distract the other students. Most everyone was moaning, which also did not contribute to the learning environment. There were three students whose eyes had been gouged out, leaving gaping, bloody sockets. Raymond couldn't see how this was related to the heat, and guessed they must be transfer students. To accommodate them, Raymond made a mental note to be sure to repeat all his main points in a clear voice, even if he wrote them on the board. In the corner was a humanoid-looking tree. Its bark smoldered, and it groaned.
Raymond walked to the front of the room. He tried to introduce himself, but was drowned out by ghastly wails from beyond the rough-hewn rock wall. He put his mouth near the wall and shouted, “Excuse me!” repeatedly, and then, “Hey, we're having a class here!” He accidentally brushed his lip against the wall, and jerked his head back in pain. A blister was already forming on his lip from the hot stone, and his shouting hadn't affected the racket next door. In the second row, a woman's hair caught fire.
“Tough crowd,” he said under his breath, and shook his head. Then, “Two years, two years.” He tried very hard to remember if converting the job to tenure track was his option, or the administration's.
Richard Dean wrote this story well before applying for his current job at the American University of Beirut, and also before applying for his previous job at Rutgers University. By no means is he comparing either place to Hell.
It’s that magical time of the month: the faculty meeting.
I’ve only been attending these time-honored rituals for about five years, but I’ve noticed something a little unsettling about the behavior of my colleagues: Though some are as quirky and unpredictable as the Chicago weather, many cling like spandex to the same role, month after month, year after year, agenda after agenda. They seem a little typecast -- much like an actor who is always The Ingénue or The Mustache-twirling Villain.
In the interests of taxonomy and comedy, I’ve identified and named some of these character types. See if you recognize any of the following roles, which you may have played with gusto, admired from afar, or suffered through in perturbed silence. All pronouns reflect the gender of the specimens at my college, but I trust males and females of all these types can be found in the academic wilds.
Also known as The Yammerer, The Eternal Flame, and He Who Has Fallen In Love With His Own Voice And Is Happily Married Until Death Do Us All Mercifully Part. The Yakker has made many a faculty member pray for death, even a painful one, if it would only distract from the all-too-familiar tones of this bottomless bucket of bloviation. Singlevoicedly, he adds a half hour to every meeting, for no issue of any kind can pass without The Yakker attacking it at length, in depth, and ad nauseum.
It’s not that The Yakker has nothing useful to say. Sometimes he makes a solid point, but because his comments come in such massive and predictable bulk, any quality is lost in the quantity, like a dead squirrel under six feet of snow. Faculty members who have been at my college for decades have given several full years of their lives listening to The Yakker. Yet I feel the greatest sympathy for Mrs. Yakker -- also on the faculty—who has sacrificed so much more for the cause, whatever that cause may be.
Just as Indiana Jones cautioned foes, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight,” these multitaskers believe one should never enter a faculty meeting without a tall stack of student papers. Always sitting in the back, preferably behind a post or big-boned colleague, The Grader is rude but efficient.
Since The Grader contributes nothing to the meeting, there’s not much to say about her. She does raise an interesting question though: I always wonder if papers graded during a faculty meeting are evaluated differently than papers graded in coffee shops, offices, or bathtubs. Does the constant drone of The Yakker cause The Grader to bitterly dish out Cs and Ds? Or do the students seem like paragons of sane clarity next to the blatherings and blitherings of faculty? Further research is needed.
Not far from The Grader, someone is getting a few winks in, and I don’t mean the sexually harassing kind. It’s hard to say whether this character is more courageous or cowardly. I’d never have the stones to openly close my eyes (and occasionally snore) in front of my peers, but The Snoozer does. Then again, maybe it’s more lily-livered to turn away from the budgets and bureaucracy of meetings in favor of the beaches and bunnies of dreams. But let’s move on from The Snoozer, lest we interrupt the flow of drool.
I once saw a literal, professional regurgitator on the Letterman show. This guy could swallow pennies, then immediately (ew) bring them back up -- and his most dangerous trick involved a light bulb. At faculty meetings, The Regurgitator performs a function that is not as impressive or gross: the perpetual reintroducing of ancient issues and settled arguments. If there’s a dead end we’ve already gone down seven or more times, The Regurgitator will intrepidly lead us there again. If there’s a deceased horse who has lacked flogging for even one meeting, The Regurgitator will raise the whip. Nothing is ever settled for The Regurgitator; nothing is ever pointless to discuss.
Warning: The Regurgitator may cause The Eye-rollers (a well-stocked segment of the faculty troupe who are like a passive-aggressive Greek chorus) to exert themselves to the point of optical damage.
At my college, we have a few different species of Wonk, but though they display different plumages and jargon, they are all pretty much the same. Each month, they bring forth handouts and overhead presentations about rules, policy, governance, technology, assessment, and many other technical matters. The Wonk -- usually a staff member, not faculty -- is greeted with a mixture of confused boredom, technophobic fear, wistful nostalgia, and defeated resignation to a lack of understanding. Ultimately, The Wonk is a sad (though occasionally informative) role.
The Voice of Reason
Lest you think I find every one of my colleagues a source of comedy or aggravation, there is at least one person I enjoy: She is The Voice of Reason. What The Yakker takes twenty minutes to say, The Voice of Reason covers in five. The Voice of Reason can explain The Wonk’s tired wonkery better than The Wonk, while politely and swiftly bringing an end to The Regurgitator’s gross performance. Even The Grader or The Snoozer might look up from their student papers and blissful slumbers to take note of The Voice of Reason’s ideas.
If The Voice of Reason were also The Dean, our college would have few troubles, and the hills would be alive with logic and common sense.
But then there would be no need for The Unknown Humorist: a role about which -- thank Zeus -- no details are available at this time.
Al Campbell is the pseudonym for an unknown humorist who teaches writing at a public university in the Northeast.
At U of All People, high-tech teaching is up for discussion, partly because a recent report from our regional accreditor report labeled us as “hopelessly mired in the past.” The evaluators suggested that we adopt smart classrooms, including PowerPoint and clickers in our lecture halls, interactive digital whiteboards and video hook-ups in the labs, and WiFi and virtual reality in our student recreation facilities. They strongly recommended that we provide laptops for all our incoming freshmen (after which, the computers could be passed on to needy faculty members).
But not so fast. We remember the days of the overhead projector and educational filmstrips, and we cherish the past because, frankly, it’s cheaper. This is just one reason that our motto for as long as we can recall has been “We remember.”
Accordingly, we’ve consulted with our public relations committee, and we think we might be able to drive an end-run around this current craze for technology by performing an about-face and kicking sand in the face of the technophiles. We call our movement “Back to the Basics,” and here are just a few salvos:
Those anatomically curved desk-wings with full electronic hook-ups are just an excuse to plug in rather than pay attention. There’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and taking notes the old-fashioned way. That’s why we at U of All People are bringing back desks with inkwells and real ink in them. We’ve also found a place that will supply quills at $10 per gross and foolscap and blotters at amazing values. When one of our literature professors intones, “Much critical ink has been spilt on this question,” our students will know exactly what he’s talking about.
Tired of faculty and students using copiers to effortlessly reproduce everything they see, as the evil progeny of the Xerox Corporation grows ever faster? Bring back the ditto machines!
Remember those unlovely hand-crank apparatuses that went ka-chunk, ka-chunk and spat out a page for every turn of the rotating drum? Remember that vaguely nauseating smell of ditto spirits, and the oddly purple text it produced? So do we, and we’ve found a whole slew of ditto machines in the basement supply room under Main Hall, along with cartons of stencils from the Kennedy era. Now those who want to create a handout will have to think twice before embarking on the effort: cutting shapes on wax-backed paper with a typewriter, not to mention fixing typos with a penknife and Liquid Paper. Now that’s pedagogical commitment.
Speaking of typing: Enough with those inkjet printers and their water-soluble text, as well as laser printers and their toner issues! We want to return to the days of tappety-tap-tap, still dear to the hearts of many old-time news reporters. For our Yellow Journalism School, we’ve located a stock of Olympia manual typewriters, guaranteed not to crash in the event of a power outage. We’ll restore the romance of the press, you’ll see! Just make sure to keep a carbon copy of whatever you write.
And finally, about those annoying whiteboards where the writing gets lost in the glare from the fluorescent light bulbs, and the multicolored markers dry out after five classes: We believe that a blackboard and chalk are more ecologically green than those newfangled nuisances, and we’ve recently re-slated all our classroom boards. Each faculty member has been issued a brand-new box of chalk for the upcoming semester, with instructions on choosing eraser monitors based on class performance. Clapping erasers used to be a privilege!
At U of All People, we remember.
David Galef is a professor of English at Montclair State University. His latest publication is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories.
Recently resigned, or deposed, community college president.
Yesterday I was the CEO at North East Central Community College here in Folsom County, West Dakota. Today, I’m contemplating my own crisis in leadership. Following a faculty vote of no confidence, and caving in to growing board pressure, I packed it in this morning. No one was surprised, really, including me. But more about that later.
This evening I am sitting here at the bar nursing a weak gin and tonic, assessing the landscape of my shattered career. This place is nothing fancy, that’s for sure. I don’t know when it saw fresh air last. Located in Payson, West Dakota, this bar and grill has been owned by the same guy, I.M. Contento, for nearly a decade. I’m a little bit out of my element -- but I’m comforted by the visual relics of my own blue collar past -- seed company calendars, jars of pickled pigs feet, softball trophies, and the effervescent aroma of bacon, beer, and cheese. Many of the locals know me and enjoy seeing me stop in for an occasional drink. I probably get in here once a month. Maybe more.
I’m not sure what happened. Enrollments didn’t increase, but they didn’t decline much, either. We opened up more centers. I had bandwidth upgraded. I was in Rotary. I brought in some of my former graduate school colleagues from University of T-cough- at cough-in to help invigorate the executive staff and to help bring this district into the 21st century in terms of management. I wanted diversity on the management team. I made all of the directors deans and all of the deans became associate VPs. Only one of the new VP’s had emotional problems, but no damage was done. He checked into rehab. Our quality initiatives must have moved the college forward. We redid offices, put in new floors and windows, and really spruced the place up, too. We won several national awards.
I remember there was some grousing when I had the president’s salary increased to 185K, but the board agreed we needed to be competitive in future presidential searches.
I guess the future arrived more quickly than I anticipated.
The hazy blue smoke in this bar settles at about stool seat level. I wish I.M. Contento would do something about that. Why doesn’t he install some fans or air purifiers or something? I should say something before I have another asthma attack. The country music just drones on and on. All those sad songs about lying, drinking, and needing to be somewhere else. How do these people stand it?
The lights around the mirrors seem so harsh. I barely recognize my own face in the mirror -- the burdens of ileadership, I guess. All those retreats, keynote speeches, conferences, dinners, trips to Europe -- just so much , so much over the years.
The governing board said I spent too much time out of state. They said I belonged to too many national organizations and attended too many conferences. They just don’t understand the difficult and complicated nature of being a community college president. Networking means survival and prosperity for the institution and for me. They don’t understand that the community is much bigger now. We can serve China! GI’s! Nebraska! Technology has empowered us to do so much more than teach welding, massage therapy, and fertilizer applications. We ought to do more than just serve the needs of our county taxpayers! We can have the reputation of being a global higher education leader! Oh, I guess it’s no longer we.
I remember hearing that Contento worked at a community college out west somewhere before he moved here and bought this place. I heard he was a dean or a director or something. Somebody said he has a doctorate. I did hear him, once, muttering something about the “illusion” community colleges project. Who knows what that is supposed to mean?
He must be out of touch with community colleges. Maybe he was a custodian or a purchasing agent or an athletic director.
I wonder if anybody ever talked to him about teaching for us as an adjunct.
I guess it’s not us anymore.
Well, the faculty senate sent me a letter asking why my own kids didn’t attend our college. I tried to explain, directly and honestly, that my wife and I had always dreamed of sending them to Nebraska State. We wanted them to have a university experience, you know, nothing wrong with that. Our kids really didn’t need the community college, you know.
I wonder how many of the patrons here at the “Noseguard Pub” take classes at NECCC? This second drink is really watered down. I wonder if we -- oops -- they -- should work up a transfer curriculum in Bartending? Could we articulate that with NEWDU? Is that part of the guaranteed transfer curriculum? Would bartending fit into the MYJAK or the LOWJAK pathway? Or should it be in an AAS program? I know some of the NECCCT (er, that’s NECCC now) faculty thinks we should focus on AAS degrees. Hah. What do they know? We’re higher education leaders. We ought to be offering BA degrees. We? I mean they, of course. I’m done. But my future is wide open.
There must be a hundred openings nation wide for community college presidents right now. How can that be? We have millions of professionals trained in leadership skills. Maybe this county is just too rough cut to understand what I was trying to do here.
Based on what I learned at several conferences, I recommended we take “Technical” out of our name and emphasize transfer education. I remember several of the local machine shops, meat cutters, massage therapists, hospitals, carpenters, clinics, and local businesses questioned that move -- both the name change and the focus shift. But I was convinced we could become higher education leaders. Just convinced. Six out our 53 full time faculty have doctorates. One even has a Ph.D. They are all actively involved in committee work and have been through total quality training. Heck, I sent 22 of them to NISOD last year. That is Excellence! The nearest university, North Eastern West Dakota University, is over 50 miles away. They are snooty and elitist. We are the only postsecondary -- I mean higher education -- institution serving the county. And we serve the entire county pretty darn well when the ITV system is working!
I must have been mumbling out loud. Contento wandered over and jumped in. “That’s the problem, Dr Dolly" -- “Call me Phil,” I interjected – “OK, uh, Phil, you have tried to make a postsecondary institution into a higher education institution. The town wants jobs, not philosophy. They send their kids off to NEWDU for that. And another thing -- why do you recruit athletes from Uganda to run track? You’ve got South Korean tennis players! Why are the football players from Texas? Why is the woman’s basketball team from Window Rock Arizona? This is Western Dakota, for God’s sake. Let these kids who grew up here, whose folks live here, let these kids play."
He really is out of touch. Some of those NECCC athletes just competed in the Olympics for their own nations! And one of ‘em medaled!
“You know, Dr. Phil (nomenclature he seemed comfortable with), I think many of the faculty at Payson High right here in town have better teaching credentials than your full time faculty. Stop all those leadership speeches! Who is it you think you are leading? Everybody at your college is a leader! Doesn’t anybody work? Have you ever asked yourself what the town thinks of NECCCT? Oops. I mean NECCC. Really asked?”
“And whenever I dial a phone number at NECCCT (oops, I mean NECCC), I get an answering machine. No one ever returns my calls. What kind of customer service is that? Are your people in meetings all day?”
Thank goodness, he’s wandered off to flirt with that curvy redhead at the end of the bar.
He evidently hadn’t heard I resigned -- he still seems to think I’m the president. No matter. Contento is obviously out of touch with best practices of community college management, too.
Oh. The accreditation people were concerned 50 percent of our total enrollment comes from dual enrollment with high school kids (and the classes are taught at the high schools by high school teachers). How can that be considered double dipping? I am very comfortable with those partnerships. I told the board and the faculty such outreach was important to stakeholder satisfaction.
Uh oh. He is coming back. No -- he sat down with a bottle of Scoresby’s. Good. Looks like he’s eating one of those bar pizzas -- the kind that is always half burnt.
I understand Southern Canada Community College and Arctic Region Community College may soon have openings for CEO’s, but it is so tiresome dealing with those consulting firms…
The smoke in here is really getting bad. This third drink seems to be stronger, anyway. Now I’m eating some two day old popcorn. Is there anybody in here who isn’t smoking or wearing a tattoo? All those piercings! Please!!! And that music!
It’s a darn good thing I negotiated the parachute package back in '06 when they gave me a five year contract. But I’m not sure how Molly and I will live on 100 grand this next year.
I guess I’ll email those head hunters at findaprez.com tomorrow. Maybe I’ll try www.ccpresidentsrus.com. There must be a community college out there needing my leadership skills, my knowledge of management styles, my commitment to the learning college philosophy, my zest for policy governance, and my networking abilities. I really can bring a unique skills set to an institution.
I just hope they don’t ask me if I have any publications.