Ambition can’t wait but our salaries sure can

Photo courtesy of Drexel University

Photo courtesy of Drexel University

Opening the Internet on my home computer, I am frequently greeted by a headline in garish yellow: “Ambition Can’t Wait.” Unlike other advertisements that clutter my screen, this one has no off button.

The message, of course, is Drexel University’s. Someone designed it as a catchy institutional logo, and someone’s instructional or salary dollars — yours and mine, to be specific — paid for the consultants who dreamed it up.

Normally, unsolicited advertising isn’t worth the time it takes to avert your eyes from it. But perhaps we should spend a moment or two on the words of this particular message. They sum up Drexel’s present problems, and arguably those of academia in general.

Education does involve waiting, sometimes of an unwelcome kind. You wait for acceptance by the school of your choice, or the course or instructor you want. You wait for a dorm room, and you wait on grades. If you’re looking for a tenure-track job, you may as well be waiting forever.

But education is also about taking time.

It takes time to read a book or take a course. It takes time to think out a complex question in mathematics or philosophy. It takes a lifetime to acquire an education that, if you understand what the term means, is and always will be incomplete, because it’s a process, not a credential. Education, in the deepest sense, is about learning how to wait productively, and taking the time you need. It’s about slowing down so you can understand something, not speeding up to catch it.

Maybe ambition can’t wait, though often it probably should. But education has to wait. Rush past it and you’re an ignoramus with a degree. Get where you want in a hurry and you may find it’s not where you wanted to go.

So, “Ambition Can’t Wait” is not only a stupid slogan, it’s empty in the way most advertising slogans are. Applied to higher education, it’s just about the opposite of what you should be looking for.

Universities used to run on a slower clock, the one provided in lectures and seminars, in study by the lamp and in the arduous process of cracking problems or writing books and papers. Then administrators took them over and put them on corporate time, which is result and not quality oriented, and defined quintessentially by the buck. Ambitious administrators are the ones who can’t wait. They didn’t at Drexel.

Now we’re about to find out the price.

Several years ago, pressed to increase admissions and therefore revenue, some of those administrators decided to solicit as many student applications as possible, regardless of quality. The idea was that yield would go up as the quality went down. That meant admitting students unlikely to stay long and in many cases certain to fail. Their money, though, was as good as anyone else’s, and even if the cash flow didn’t last, there’d always be the next cohort to pick up the slack.

This policy was (a) immoral, and (b) stupid.

It was immoral, because accepting students you know are likely to fail is cheating them not only of their money but of their hopes and dreams. It was stupid, because the most elementary acquaintance with higher education will tell you it is a recipe for economic as well as academic disaster.

Underqualified students drag down the experience of education for everyone, students and teachers alike. They clog remedial classes at pointless trouble and expense. They are sold the prospect of success by those who know they are doomed to failure.

In the end, too, they sink the ship. Academic recruitment is a competitive business, and it doesn’t take long before word of your con gets around. Good students are forewarned, and stay away. Your academic rating sinks, and your reputation — hard to build, easy to lose, and twice as hard to recover — suffers. It’s a Ponzi scheme in which the ultimate loser is the university itself.

The scheme was hatched in the previous Drexel administration. Everyone had a hand in it. Administrators devised it. The Board of Trustees licensed it. The faculty tolerated it. The present administration finally stopped it, but that should have been its business from day one.

Let’s just say, though, that there’s plenty of blame to go around. University administrators admit students, but the faculty’s job is to monitor those admissions and make sure they not only maintain the academic level of the institution but strive to improve it. In this as in so many other matters related to its governance responsibilities, Drexel’s faculty laid down on the job. There are reasons for this, to be sure, beginning with a long tradition of faculty quiescence and with a Faculty Senate unworthy of the name.

But there’s no excuse.

The result of this sorry tale is damage to the university, both short and long-term. The long-term damage is to its reputation, and to the programs that will suffer or perish with belt-tightening. The present damage is to its current operations, specifically its budget. The necessity to ratchet up admissions standards led to problems last year, and a precipitous decline in what clearly were recklessly inflated enrollment expectations for this past fall. As usual at Drexel, the budgetary problems were passed down the line to individual colleges and programs.

The least one can expect of the administration at this point is candor. Secrecy and evasion are the watchwords instead. The first shoe dropped in December, when faculty annual salaries above $75,000 were frozen. The news of this came on a late Friday afternoon dump after the end of the fall quarter, with many faculty already dispersed on Christmas break.

The second shoe is dropping as I speak, and it looks to be a good deal heavier. But since the senior administration doesn’t want to be the bearer of bad news — or responsibility — it is leaving it to smaller fry to deal with it in a swirl of supposition and rumor. It’s always great for morale when the boss cops out.

Among the rumored changes are those affecting senior faculty, of whom I am one.

A plan has been bruited that would cut all medical benefit contributions to retirees, currently ranging from $3,600 to $7,200 a year, effective July 1. Those contributions were reduced from previous minimums of $400 a month to $300, so they’ve already been slashed by a quarter while medical premiums, of course, have continued to rise. Faculty who retire by June 30 would keep their benefits (for now), and also receive a lump sum retirement payment of 75 percent of their annual salary (up from the current 50 percent, but down from the 100 percent customarily paid out until 2013).

Start cleaning out those desks, guys! Ain’t it great to feel appreciated?

Rumor, of course, has a purpose: it is to spread fear. Fear creates anxiety, and anxiety breeds docility. When the actual news comes, maybe it’s not as bad as you thought, or, if it is, you can be glad it’s not worse.

There’s another way to make painful decisions, and that is collaboratively, with the participation of university stakeholders that builds a consensus based on fairness, openness, acceptance of responsibility, and a plan going forward.

The president could start by coming clean about the figures, addressing a university assembly, and taking direct questions. It’s a suggestion he might consider. But if things are done in the more usual way, administrative culprits will seek to cover their backsides, and the Faculty Senate will be left to carry out the bedpans.  

Stay tuned.