Everyone is now depressingly familiar with the budget crisis facing the PASSHE schools, SRU included. Today, lots more people have “retrenchment” in their personal vocabulary. The threats are familiar: the firing of tenured faculty, the non-renewal of temporary faculty, the possible closure of academic departments or the suspension of particular majors. In response, university administrators have talked about jobs, deficits, budgets, demand, and the infamous “workforce plan” ad nauseam. What they haven’t talked much about is education. Sure, they invoke PASSHE’s mission of providing students with a “quality education,” but they never say what that phrase means or say what they’re going to do to protect it in these terrible times. When Chancellor Brogan stopped by SRU two weeks ago he, too, had nothing substantial to say about education. Strange, considering his role as chancellor of a state-funded university system.
Brogan did speak about a few things, and he did so in a specific way. Not only what he said, but how he said it, should frighten those of us at the mercy of his authority, students and faculty alike. First, Brogan attributes the declining enrollment at PASSHE schools to “declining population generally.” This is not only vague and useless for an understanding of enrollment, it is misleading. It makes it sound like there are fewer students going to college these days because there are fewer people having babies or moving their families to western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and northern West Virginia. It would have been more accurate, and more honest, for Brogan to cite the systematic decrease of funding for public education carried out by Republican governor Tom Corbett. It would have been more accurate for Brogan to talk about poverty as a major cause of declining enrollments and how student aid policies rarely help students from the poorest families get into college, let alone climb out of poverty. Brogan would have spoken the truth if he had mentioned that his political vision is right in line with Corbett’s.
Second, when Brogan spoke about education it was to suggest that “we need to look at…our [general education] program and look at it deeply….” This is to make sure that PASSHE is providing a “world class experience” for students. But he said nothing about what this would entail beyond his suggestion that having a class with a student from a foreign country counts as an international education. But how could any of the PASSHE schools provide a world-class education without a robust modern languages program, which provides the linguistic tools to properly understand the literature, culture, and philosophy of other peoples? Wouldn’t a world-class education guarantee that SRU students could speak to their foreign classmates in a foreign language? Modern languages is a severely disabled program in the PASSHE system, constantly targeted for budget cuts. Does Brogan really believe that students can get a genuine international education without leaving campus? Without intensive study of modern languages (to say nothing of ancient languages)? Brogan should have said what a world-class general education means to him, and how he plans on helping PASSHE achieve world-class status while cutting those programs that help students truly understand the world and their place in it. Instead, he offered us the “Travel Channel” approach to international education. We are far from his ideal, and there is reason to suspect that Brogan will not only fail to help us realize it, but actually make it worse.
Third, he talked about closing programs that are “undersubscribed.” Since when are university programs like magazines? Is the university’s job to provide whatever programs that high school students demand? Last time I checked the university is a place for students to discover and think about new ideas, concepts, and problems that they were unaware of before attending the university. Brogan’s vision, however, is the “Your Way, Right Away” approach to majoring and minoring. Unfortunately, that’s just not a vision for a university system. High school simply doesn’t teach students how to design and run a university. On Brogan’s logic, SRU should supply the programs students want. I’m sure that if SRU offered a degree in retail store sales, and promised internships at the Grove City Outlets, then there would be a significant demand for this major. Does this mean that SRU should start such a major? Can a university offer any degree it wants, provided that students and employers want it? Should there be a degree in Humans vs. Zombies? Surely none of this is in the PASSHE mission statement. What we do find in the mission is a promise of quality education, but administrators don’t want to talk about what this means.
Finally, Brogan talked about PASSHE as “different from any other education delivery system.” Let’s call this the “Post Office” view of education. For Brogan, education is something that is packaged, shipped, and delivered by the university and its personnel. Presumably, this means that a professor’s job is to deliver knowledge to her students, responsibly packaged, on time, and at an affordable price. Isn’t online education the logical outcome of this vision—education literally delivered to your home? Unless I’m mistaken, education is a cooperative (not corporate) enterprise, something that faculty and students share together. This means that education is precisely not something that can be delivered. If it were, then the ideal education would involve hooking up the student’s brain to a computer and downloading their degree directly to their neural hard drive. Now, that’s an ideal vision, but it’s not a responsible vision of education. Teaching is not about delivering packages. It’s about exploring ideas together, sharing new ideas, and seeing the connections between different disciplines. That’s what general education is all about. It’s the heart of a university education; it’s deeply personal and best accomplished face to face. That’s where the “rubber meets the humanity road,” as Brogan would say.
Slippery Rock is not the Travel Channel, the US Postal Service, or Burger King. It is not a corporate training ground. It is a university. It’s time that our administrators and state education officials stop talking like economists and businesspeople and start talking about education. What is their vision of education and teaching? What do President Norton and Chancellor Brogan think a university education should be? It can’t just be about job preparation. Lots of things prepare us for jobs, so what’s special about the university? Do criminology students really just want to become police officers? If so, why not attend the police academy instead? They must be looking for something more than job training at SRU. Let’s talk about what that “more” must involve in order for it to be “world-class.” Chances are that getting a world-class education is going to take a fight, a fight for better political leaders, better educational vision, and better funding for public education. If our university administrators aren’t fighting for these things, are they really invested in education?