While I have been retired from Michigan State University for three years, I spent 30 years of my life walking the campus, teaching classes, helping students and faculty uncover information they sought, active in faculty governance and founding and directing sustainability operations. It is no small part of my life. So it is not without significant disappointment that recent, and more unfortunately not so recent events have the whole world looking at the institution as seriously flawed.
President Simon in happier days, no doubt pleased I was retiring from MSU
It was not uncommon just a few years back when Penn State suffered similar review, that some smug Spartans would ridicule the Nittany Lions for their failings. Many of those same people have not wanted to admit MSU was guilty for the Larry Nassar sexual abuse epidemic. Good and generally honorable people turned away from this possibility when those brave enough reported it. Some of those have gone off to hide. Last night the president resigned under increasing pressure.
Today I was interviewed by a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education. She's interviewing many people so I doubt anything I said was unique or articulate enough to make it into whatever article she publishes in the days ahead. But the conversation with the reporter did propel me to reflect more on what direction MSU might take from here. Of crucial importance is the selection of an interim president and then, of course, the search for the next president.
As I told the reporter when prompted, I thought bringing in a former governor or corporate CEO was a horrible idea. What is needed is an experienced academic, who has operated at some administrative level and who has the human skills needed to guide others through a "truth and reconciliation" type process. Given the MSU Board of Trustees, I am doubtful any such person will be sought or hired. I have not been impressed by the board for the most part over my 30+ years at MSU. Trustees are largely selected by the two major parties, based upon a combination of name recognition, what they have done for the party, and really nothing regarding their experience with higher education other than being a student at one. The state's citizens then select from these choices, based almost entirely on party affiliation. In my opinion, we lost sight of that at MSU, and most of higher education long ago.
But this disruption of the status quo built under the reign of President Simon for almost 25 years (if you combine her provost and presidential positions) provides a major opportunity for the land grant university to reconsider its future direction. Do we really believe that the direction Simon was pushing MSU towards was the one we should be on? President Simon and I shared some strong areas of disagreement over the years. Even so, I would never doubt her commitment and her work ethic for the university. But on the direction she dragged us - yes one legitimate critique of her reign, was that she was a top down manager, I had strong disagreements. Those are besides the point at the moment. This moment is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the true mission of MSU in the second decade of the 21st Century. What does the world need from Michigan State University now? We have entered the Anthropocene since President Simon and I were born. That reality alone mandates we shift how we think about the human role on a finite planet.
Over the years of this blog I have written about higher education's role, its possibilities, and its shortcomings. In looking over a few of those I believe a couple of them at least are quite pertinent to the moment as we seek to move forward and to seize this opportunity. One of those blogs goes back to an earlier MSU President whose name has come up recently in comparison to the tenure of President Simon. President John Hannah whose statue sits prominently in front the of the Administration Building that bears his name. On that statue are carved these words of Hannah:
"If educators are agreed on anything, it is that the fundamental purpose of education is to prepare young people to be good citizens."
That blog goes on to explore the context of those remarks of Hannah's I found after going through the archives to locate the source of that quote. The excerpts I share from Hannah in that blog are most pertinent to the decision place we are in now. In a later blog that year I was reviewing a new book from Satish Kumar, the long time leader of Schumacher College in Great Britain. Again several excerpts help point us towards a needed vision of the kind of education we need in these times.
"One of the primary tests of an organization is whether it turns people into instruments to perpetuate the system and sees people as a means to an end, or whether the organization exists as a means and people are the end."
An even earlier blog entry was largely based on a new book from British educator Ronald Barnett that challenged the higher education sector or "re-imagine" itself.
"Ideas of the university in the public domain are hopelessly impoverished. 'Impoverished' because they are unduly confined to a small range of possible conceptions of the university; and 'hopelessly' because they are too often without hope, taking the form of either hand-wringing over the current state of the university or merely offering a defence of the emerging nature of 'the entrepreneurial university'.
Why does this matter, and why does it matter at this particular time? At the very moment when the idea of the university should be opening out, it seems to be closing in, at least in the public imagination. The idea of the university has, of course, undergone many shifts and been subject to varying conceptions over time. For some hundreds of years, the idea of the university was - as it might be said - that of the metaphysical university, reflective of inquiry that enhanced humanity's connections with God, or the Universe, or Truth, or Spirit, or even the State. That conception gave way to the research university, which is now giving way to that of the entrepreneurial university, which in turn is closely allied to the emergence of a tacit idea of the corporate university.
What is striking about this conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone - over nearly one thousand years - is that it has gradually shrunk. Whereas the metaphysical university was associated with the largest themes of humanity's self-understanding and relationships with the world, the idea of the university has increasingly - and now especially in its entrepreneurial and corporate incarnations - closed in. The entrepreneurial university is expected to fend for itself, and attend to its potential impact on particular segments of the economy, and become distinctive. This university has abandoned any pretence to be associated with universal themes.
The idea of the university has closed in ideologically, spatially and ethically. ideologically, the contemporary envelope of ideas encourages the university to pursue quite narrow interests, particularly those of money (in the service of a national - or even a global - knowledge economy); spatially, the university is enjoined to engage its region, especially with industrial or business organizations in its environs (increasingly its students are also 'local'); and ethically, the university has become focused on its own interests. It will, as a result, close departments of chemistry or physics or modern languages or philosophy because it sees such closures as serving its own (usually financial) interests rather than their being laced in a set of public interests.
There is much more that could be said as we take this moment to reconsider what Michigan State University and higher education overall should be doing to help us cope with accelerating complex and wicked problems that are interdependent and yet crucially need to be addressed with gusto and humility. While my faith in the university leadership is lacking, that's no reason why the voices of faculty, students and staff might call for the kind of deep and reflective conversations that might help us redirect the institution towards the needs of our present and future generations.
If the reader feels pessimistic and despondent over the prospects, perhaps the insights of Rebecca Solnit, one of our best living writers can propel you forward.