Less Bread and More Circuses

What would happen if the faculty and students in all the public universities in the United States in September of 2016, starting on Labor Day, called for a one week teach-in that shut the normal campus programs down across the US to explore the issues at hand and create a plan that would re-capitalize and re-energize the academic spirit, the core rationale for public education in general and public universities in particular.

The news feeds in both click and brick space have noted that universities across the United States acquired 1.2 billion USD for sports programs and facilities. In parallel, there are continued reports of academic budgets being reduced in public universities while private, ranked universities in the United States continue to grow their endowments.

While there is continued reporting of cuts in specific universities, there seems to be little concrete action and visible support from the academic community at large other than ululations and condemnations while faculty and students seem to be ducking for cover.

We have seen programs at universities organize around concerns that either lie outside of the institutions or peripherally have focus within the disciplinary areas. Civil rights, the Viet Nam war, and various social issues within the United States such as GLBT or the rights of various minority groups (e.g. “Black Lives Matter”) or economic disparity (wealth amongst the 1%) have commanded various levels of attention/action.

While one can list a number of reasons, there has not been the concerted action across The Academy and academic institutions to respond to what has often been described as a crisis in higher education, primarily the defunding of the core institutions that were developed to provide individuals with the skills necessary to participate in a vibrant civic life and to gain capabilities to contribute to the community economic wellbeing.

As with the rise of labor unions in the past, and the formation of civic action outside of The Academy with respect to championing these core challenges, the increasing demand that universities are facing is to become engaged with critical issues from the environment and climate challenges to global issues of human justice and societal well-being. This commands that the universities take careful stock of their capabilities and mission beyond basic research and imparting basic knowledge.

Society demands this from the institutions of higher learning and must adequately support the institutions to actively engage with the critical issues both within the society at large and the institutions themselves. This requires providing sufficient resources to the institutions, the faculty and the students to address these critical issues.

It commands that those who provide funds to support the institutions to consider first and foremost the basic and critical mission of the university in the areas of scholarship, research and civic engagement. The balance between civic engagement and contributions to the economic wellbeing are currently out of balance. What is even further out of balance is the support focused on extramural activities such as sports. While well-rounded graduates need engagement in physical activities, balance needs to be regained. Such activities can be met via intramural engagements and even in the demands created in responding to many academic activities related to academic programs-for example, in the environment.

Recent reports on the funds donated to athletics programs points out that donors receive concessions on seating and parking, pointing to the fact that these activities provide perceived benefits to the donors and their interests in their perceived entertainment benefits. Academic programs lack resources at a time when such significant funds are provided for benefits not directly critical to the education of those who matriculate at the institutions. Significant time and resources for some institutions have been committed to addressing the politically correct naming of athletic teams and mascots as a major issue as they have been to contracts for broadcast rights and logo licensing for sports.

It’s time to rebalance the university both with respect to its larger function within the global community and within its own community. The US post-secondary community has been divided by geo/political boundaries and thus remains fragmented and pulling in many directions. Unilateral action by a single public institution denies the fact that they all have a common core mission and need mutual reinforcement and collaboration to reach their critical purpose. As long as they accept this division where each must stand on its own within the geo/political paradigm, the division will continue to prevent concerted and committed action to change.

A national teach-in is a first step to rebuilding the purpose and clear direction for The Academy.

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