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Saturday, December 22, 2007

How to close a university: hold a lottery

Talk of closing one of the state’s higher education institutions has been circulating through weblogs, and was featured on the front page of the Aberdeen American News. This story is a perennial favorite with the South Dakota news tedia, and is published as regularly as the one they run each spring telling us that the ticks are coming and we should tuck our pants legs into our socks. So far no universities, except for Springfield, have closed, and I have seen no one walking around on spring outings with pants tucked into their socks, except for some bloggers of the right-wing stripe who were also wearing their chastity belts on the outside of their jeans. They wore the keys to the belts around their necks on a lanyard which stipulated "For emergencies and secular humanists only."

A state legislator from Rapid City is planning to introduce a bill which would require the closing of one of the state’s campuses. Early this year an editor on the Argus Leader weblog called for the closing of Northern State University.

A group is circulating a ballot measure to make the wearing of chastity belts mandatory. You know, click it or ticket. The secular humanists have raised a clamor because it doesn't contain an exception for eunuchs.

Many factors are contributing to the urge to close down a college. One is the establishment of University Center in Sioux Falls. It is a place where the state colleges offer a range of courses to serve the people in the state's largest metro area. A lot of folks think it is a seventh university. Now some people in Rapid City also want a university center of that nature.

On top of that the Board of Regents want to spend a bunch of money for labs on each campus. That is a stickler of a problem because most people in South Dakota think a lab is either black or yellow and retrieves dead birds. Geesh, they say, first they want to spend money on laptops for each student and now they want to give them labs.

And then there is the South Dakota rule: you can't improve education by throwing money at it.

People in South Dakota are really for education if it doesn't cost anything. And if money came from somewhere to throw at education, it would ruin the state's distinctive ranking for teacher pay and per-pupil spending, but the legislature would have more occasion to rise on the floor of its chambers and say you can't improve education by throwing money at it, and don't judge another person until you have walked a mile in his/her chastity belt. What the legislature doesn't expend in money it makes up for in wisdom.

There is a simple way to solve the issue of closing a campus. Have a lottery. Like the one in that Shirley Jackson short story we all had to read in high school, "The Lottery." The campus presidents come before the Board of Regents and reach into a hat and draw out slip of paper. The campus of the president who draws out the slip with the black dot on it gets to be closed. The people will get to converge on that campus with their sledge hammers, chain saws, barn cleaners, Bobcats, end loaders, and bulldozers and assail everything on that campus until it is pulverized. With the exception of the political science departments. They will be moved to a reservation in the Badlands where they can work out how millions of years of evolution got packed into 6,000, how Al Gore made up all that stuff about global warming, and how to conduct a liberal eradication program in a way so that no one will call them fascists.

The president who wins the lottery will be blessed by Regents President Harvey Jewett and be given lifetime tenure as the gatekeeper in the Badlands at the Political Scientists Center for Small Particle Physics, Stem Cell Palaver, Literary Criticism, Global Warming Denial, General Fatuity, and Altar Society. The anagram is a quotation from the ever-eloquent George W. Bush. When a reporter asked him just what we think we are doing in Iraq, the President said, "PSCSPPSCPLCGWDGFAS." He is widely quoted by political scientists.

The campus closing lottery would be an annual event, because campuses are like prairie dogs. You take one out over here and another one pops up over there. Closing campuses requires an ongoing effort.

We might humbly make a suggestion about the campus closing issue. No. We'll make it arrogantly. Have you noticed that even with distance learning and computers, the demand for higher education centers is increasing? As a scientist on a nearby campus told me, no matter how sophisticated the computers and fast the network, you can't conduct laboratories by computer. The very word college means, among other things, a body of persons gathered together for a common purpose. No matter how advanced the technological delivery of materials, students and professors need a place to gather on occasion to coordinate, compare, and review the learning activities. In other words, the need for campuses or learning centers is increasing, not decreasing. The information age has made successful learning more intensive and more interactive. And higher education serves a much larger and diverse constituency than 18-t0-24-year-olds who take up residency on or near campuses. Deployment of learning resources requires meeting facilities at places convenient to the students.

A political scientist took issue with something South Dakota War College said in regard to the campus closing issue. By the way, SDWC must be emitting some powerful pheromones of late because the blog buddies sure like to piddle with PP. Anyway, PP referred to liberal arts institutions, and the political scientist corrected him and said South Dakota universities are actually vocational in nature. The last I knew, the universities offer bachelor of arts degrees, which require a broad selection of courses from many disciplines. Perhaps it wasn't a pheromone but that word "liberal" that set the political scientist off. But the political scientist has a point.

In the 1980s, for example, a college president at NSU made a strenuous effort to have the college classified as a comprehensive university. That meant that it offers a full range of curricula in the liberal arts and in specialty areas. But a mandate came down from on high, meaning the Regents office, to eliminate duplicate programs and impose minimum enrollment quotas before a class could be held. In addition, there was a struggle to limit the general education (or liberal arts) component.

Students had two major complaints as a result of the retrenching. They could not get the courses they needed to complete their majors in a reasonable time. And when they applied for premium jobs or graduate schools, they found their degrees were not competitive. I recall a number of students who had to take more undergraduate work before being admitted to graduate programs. Their degrees were regarded as vocational rather than liberal.

The policies of the past have caught up with the South Dakota system. The attempts to upgrade the science laboratories on the campuses reflect decades of negligence. In the 20 years I was at NSU, the scientists complained constantly about how absurdly inadequate the science labs were. South Dakota has also ranked at the absolute bottom for the amount of money invested in research. The Regents have launched a program to elevate that ranking in conjunction with the development of the Homestake DUSEL, but that also takes money. And scientific and engineering research are not the only areas of research that need support and resources.

Before the legislature does something hasty and foolish in regard to closing a campus, it needs to get an inventory of the resources and inadequacies of the system it has. The way to do that is to ask the professors, not the Regents.

Here are some issues that need public airing:

  • The selection of regents. Currently, they are purely political appointees, and few of them have any real familiarity with higher education. They could be elected. But at least they should be nominated by a bipartisan panel of people involved in higher education with approval required by a 60 percent vote of the State Senate. There needs to be some provisions to make them responsible to the professional educators as well as the general public.
  • Require that campus presidents also be approved by a legislative process. South Dakota needs college presidents who are chosen for academic leadership and diplomacy rather than to be shop foremen who carry out the often ignorant and destructive policies of regents.
  • Require that faculty senates issue annual reports on the performance of their campuses and the problems encountered.
  • Obtain optional plans for the deployment of resources and faculty throughout the state. This might involve a change in the way the system is administered.
  • Primarily, get information from the people who are educated to do the work, are involved in doing the work, and whose professional activities keep them in touch with how the work is done in other places.
Over the years I had colleagues leave South Dakota for better jobs in other places. When they left, they raised the question of whether South Dakota really wants to be in the higher education enterprise and whether it has the resources. That is the first question that needs an answer.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States