News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, August 2, 2007

College presidents ain't what they used to be

Last night I took Ingrid for a walk through the NSU campus. Ingrid likes to sniff at and stalk the many bunnies there. Oh, Ingrid is a Greyhound. But I dogress. I still get the same feeling when I walk on a college campus that I get when I walk inside a historic cathedral. I think of all the study and intellectual work and the many students who were launched into productive lives and careers. I think of those times when a class broke through the resistance barrier and accomplished big things.

I had such thoughts last night. But then Ingrid and I walked past my old office building. One night in the parking lot next to it, some students had a party that ended up with three young men and a young woman in a car. A crowd gathered around as the revelers in the car engaged in what used to be called heavy petting. When the young woman got up the next morning, she was chagrined at the previous nights events and reported that she had been sexually molested. The three young men were immediately booted off the campus and were later charged with rape. One blew his heart out with a deer rifle. One pleaded guilty and was sentenced. The third went to trial and was acquitted. I later had occasion to read the court transcript and was not proud of the university's attitude.

Then around the corner from where that happened, a young professor, Morgan Lewis, was found dead at the door of my old office building the day before the 2004 general election with a gunshot wound in the back of his head.

As Ingrid and I ambled on, I saw Jerde Hall where a young man died of injuries in the lobby one spring morning. And then we walked through the west parking lot which borders on a yard where one Thanksgiving weekend a young man died of hypothermia. He chugalugged from a bottle of Jack Daniels at a nearby party, tried to walk to his dorm room, took a short cut through a yard, and was unable to make it over the garden fence.

Why did these memories displace all the memories of productive academic work and capable young people venturing forth to take their places in the world? Because of a recent news story about the president of Eastern Michigan Universitiy being fired for covering up a rape and murder. Two other administrators were fired also. The bare bones of the story are that a young woman was found dead in her dorm room last December, naked from the waist down. The administration sent out a campus e-mail that the campus did not need to worry because no foul play was involved. Then in July a young man was arrested for the woman's murder and rape. The regents fired President John Fallon, III, a dean of student services, and the head of campus security for covering up the facts.

And that made me think of another place I taught. As the student union was about to close one evening, a young black man wearing an apple hat and brandishing a revolver came in and held up the cashier. A few days later the assistant manager recognized the young man as he sat drinking coffee in the Union. The young man was arrested. He was in my section of a developmental program for students from disadvantaged high schools.

The Black Student Union held a news conference in which they announced that the young man had an alibi for the time the robbery was committed. He was in a bordello across the river at the time, and the woman whose services he sought would so testify. The young man was arraigned and a preliminary hearing was held. Then nothing happened for years.

The story was forgotten until a student in my advanced journalism class, which had its work published in the campus newspaper, asked whatever happened to that case. No one could answer, so the student decided to do a follow up. When he went to the clerk of courts and asked to see the disposition of the case, there were no records. He went back through newspaper files to make sure the case had been processed through the courts, and the arraignment proceedings were reported. Then he went to the police department. One of the detectives on the case had retired and another had been put on disability. But the retired detective said that campus adminstrators had convinced the assistant union manager to withdraw his testimony, and the case just stalled out. That did not explain, however, the absence of court records. Tampering with court records is a big-time felony.

The detective explained that the administration was terribly worried about what the story would do to the fundraising and alumni work of the college and wanted the story kept as quiet as possible. The student who was charged quietly left campus and returned to his inner-city neighborhood in Chicago. The assistant union manager suddenly landed a high executive position with a large restaurant chain.

Life on college campuses has changed from the time I was an undergraduate. The restrictions placed upon students back then simply are not tolerated now. A campus was, in fact, an ivory tower that was devoted totally to doing and supporting academic work. Dorms, for example, enforced quiet hours during the evening so students could study without distraction. If you walk into a dorm today, make sure you have hearing protection.

A college president at that time was selected for his eminence as a scholar and professor, and his ability to coordinate the work of other professors. While the president had fundraising and public relations oversight, the bulk of that work was delegated to others. The president was an intellectual leader.

Today, the main function of a college president is to obtain funding, to run a public relations program in order to "sell" a good image of the institution, to attract students, and in general to be a CEO, not the chief scholar in residence.

A president I worked under insisted that image is everything. You are what you appear to be. To which a history professor replied, "Yeah, and we appear to be a bunch of liars." The fact is that on many campuses, the level of academic work actually done is far inferior to the image of it that the institution projects. Rigor and grading is governed by cash flow, not by the actual accomplishments of students.

Today, higher education institutions are run like businesses, not like the intellectual enterprises that a college or university once was. Is there grade inflation? Of course. You can't flunk or downgrade the work of students you depend upon to pay tuition. You can't give low assessments to poor performance when your fundraisers are out telling the public what miraculous standards of academic work are being produced among students. And you can't let the public know about academic cheating or seamy incidents, such as drinking binges, sexual encounters gone awry, and drug trafficking.

What happened to John Fallon, III, is probably something that is part of the job of any college president-CEO today: taking the fall when the public relations fail to disguise what is really taking place on campus. The work of most higher education institutions is devoted to image, not to the dull and hard facts of what it takes to do academic work and do it right.

Young people are vigorous and talented. But they are also vulnerable to ignorance, moments of stupidity, and the great temptations of self-indulgence. To guide them through those lapses of discipline and build character-driven personalities is why colleges were invented in the first place. College presidents are more concerned with covering up and denying those lapses than in focusing on the intellectual activities that produce real accomplishment and qualities of character.

College presidents have changed. That's because few college campuses dare to insist upon intellectual performance and integrity. They are the epitome of self-pertuating bureacracies.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States