October 19, 1999
by Tom Brennan
It’s a truism -- a business law if you will -- that in a well organized business all the components work together to support each other, which means that if the components become antagonistic and competitive, the business will eventually self-destruct as costs go up, quality declines, the market declines, and profits disappear. All the components are, in other words, harnessed to the same profit- making horse and when the horse is sick and stumbles the whole organization stumbles too.
But when a university is sick and stumbles it may be precisely because those who should know better view the university as a entrepreneurial machine. Jack Brunson, Chair pro tempore of the USA Board of Trustees, is on record as saying: “I look at it [running a university] sorta like a business,” “the student is the customer,” “we’ve gotta have enough customers.” Sorry Jack, a university is not a business, which is to say a university is not harnessed to the profit-making goal of the business horse. Rather, the organizational structure of a university reflects, or should, the more complex purposes of an entity whose primary raison d’etre is to teach and carry on research. That is, the academic horse should be given its head and the primary duty of the board of trustees of any university is to maintain and preserve that horses freedom -- we call that academic freedom. The mark of an ineffective board is its inability to stop a few self-serving members from dominating and controlling the board in ways that are destructive of academic freedom and institutional independence. This destruction is, in my opinion, especially felt in the College of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of teaching and scholarship in the College of Arts and Sciences is to create a culture of criticism -- if not an adversarial stance -- toward the very society that sustains the university. But at USA, the profit-making values of the entrepreneurial trustees, as they increasingly encroach on academic prerogatives are undermining the academic flagship, the College of Arts and Sciences, and if this process continues, the college’s ability to create a critical stance in students will dwindle into inculcating moronic thinking by the numbers.
Although this phenomenon is not unique to USA -- it’s happening almost everywhere in the United States -- what makes it especially dangerous at USA is that it is driven by some trustees whose blindered business horse is rigidly harnessed to an antiquated market-place cart several generations behind the times. As a consequence, what we have at USA is a schizophrenic organization with two horses pulling in more or less opposite directions. And as long as this situation obtains, the squabble with the USA Foundation will go on and on because the business horse thinks it has a total right to all the oats in the barn and a total right to define the mission of the university.
The lopsided intrusion of business values, which began in earnest with the ouster of Dr. Frederick Whiddon, is most evident in the hoopla surrounding the Mitchell Center, that huge barn with its marquee of running lights advertising Coors, sports, and other entertainment. Ted Miller, a sports reporter writing in the Mob.Reg., said, “USA athletics and, by extension, the entire university has turned a corner with new president Gordon Moulton and the Mitchell Center” (7/22/99 emphasis added). Early on, Mayer Mitchell touted the sports- arena idea on campus as a winner and money- maker. The money-wise Mitchell said: “I think that this [arena] is going to be a great vehicle to promote this university to corporate Mobile.” Also, Mitchell burbled enthusiastically about the money-making potential of plush seats and “sky boxes” in the priority sections of the arena. He said, according to Ronnie Clark, “it will cost up to a $1000 a year extra for an upholstered ‘priority’ seat and the right to buy the tickets to the games, and $10,000 a year to lease one of the facility’s planned 16 to 23 sky boxes.” Mitchell added, “sky boxes and priority seating have become big business for the nation’s top college athletic programs. Mitchell was also very loquacious about the corporate presence in these sky boxes: “I go to all the University of Alabama football games and sit in a box,” Mitchell said. “And there’s a lot more that goes on in these boxes that will benefit the University of Alabama than somebody just buying tickets to go the game.” (Mob.Reg., 4/21/96).
Having succeeded in getting his name in huge letters on the Mitchell Center with his $1.1 million donation, Mitchell recently shifted his colonizing efforts to another target -- the School of Business Management at USA. For the privilege of getting that college renamed The Mitchell College of Business, he and his brother Abraham have coughed up $8 million. However, at a meeting of the USA Foundation in Montgomery last month, Mayer made clear that his money could be used only for certain purposes and also that the USA Foundation had to throw in $1 million in matching funds. Mitchell insisted his money had “to go for student, faculty, and programs -- that’s what I want our money to go for.” And he was adamant that none of it could be used for bricks and mortars, though he has repeatedly insisted that the USA Foundation should spend its money on bricks and mortar instead of on students, faculty, and programs.
What’s driving Mitchell in this matter is the same thing that drove him in the matter of the “sports arena.” He wants to shape things in his own image -- that is after his image of what he believes is divinely constituted. And he will do it wheeling and dealing behind the scenes in sky boxes or in a wheedling, sanctimonious speeches before anyone who has the power to grant him his wishes. In his long rambling speech before the board of the USA Foundation Mayer said “the reason we chose the business school is that my brother and I both had the privilege of going to the outstanding business school in the United States of America at that time -- The Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.” And he added that “we felt that the University of South Alabama offered an excellent opportunity to enhance our . . . [he didn’t complete the sentence but started a new one.] Mobile in particular, by developing young people with business expertise to become young entrepreneurs to culcate [sic] themselves in our community and to help move the State of Alabama, and Mobile in particular, forward.” Right Mayer, “culcating” and inculcating are your specialty. Of course, members of the USA administration have bent over backwards with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, etc. to show their appreciation. As they should since they are gaining a lot from Mitchell’s quest for immortality through image enhancement. At the Senior-Faculty-Caucus luncheon the other day, retired management guru, Don Mosley, showed his gratitude most fulsomely when he stated that football would be a good long-term investment for USA. Mayer has made believers of the business faculty as he did similarly with the medical wing of the university. And now the USA administration with Mr. Moulton leading the way has fallen in line; they too bow down before “culcating” business techniques.
But as I indicated above the religion that Mitchell and friends have gotten is an outdated program. Nowadays, smart business types don’t want more narrowly educated Bachelors and MBAs. They are seeking to hire “Renaissance grads.” That is, according to a study done by Texas A&M Policies Research Group of 110 executives from high-tech industry, education, and government agencies, they are seeking new hires from college with a mix of both highbrow and high-tech courses. “Companies want broadly educated thinkers who have a knowledge of computers as well as cultures. They want grads who can analyze data and write clearly, have work experience and a working knowledge of another language.” “The perfect job candidate would be a liberal arts generalists who is also a computer specialist, said Debbie Herd, college relations manager for Penney’s.” “Universities are teaching ‘antiquated knowledge’ and skills, and students spend too much time on theory and not enough time applying it, according to the report.” “Said one participant: ‘In general what is taught is irrelevant to industry today. We have to completely retrain our recruits.’” “Studies over the last decade have shown that businesspeople don’t think universities do a good enough job training students, said Dr. William Osborne, dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas. He spent 22 years in industry before taking a job in higher education 11 years ago.” Osborne said that “college should remain a place where students gain ‘core’ knowledge and learn how to think on their own -- not become a ‘training shop.’” (Dallas Morning News, 7/2/99)
Apparently disenchantment with the “training-shop” approach to management education is fairly widespread and growing. A new book argues that business colleges are out-of-touch cash cows for universities. In their book, Gravy Training: Inside the Business of Business Schools (Jossey-Bass Publishers), two British business journalists, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, would sack the business faculty and make them prove they’re worthy of being rehired. Business schools, they say, are little more than cash cows -- ”gravy trains” for universities that reap the rewards of record enrollments and lucrative consulting contracts. Furthermore, they say the courses offered in business schools are hopelessly outdated. And all those star professors about whom the schools like to boast (Mayer Mitchell bemoaned the fact that the University of Alabama has 11 stars while USA has none) are spending more time flitting around the globe on consulting jobs than teaching on the campuses. “There is genuine concern that business schools have become M.B.A. factories, churning out clones -- and often unhelpful clones at that,” the authors complain. “There is also a sense that they do not serve the interests of the wider business community, but have been responsible for producing a cadre career managers -- people whose primary concern is their own career advancement and not the welfare or success of the companies they work for.” (For a fuller review of this book see October 8, 1999 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education).
So while the Mitchell brothers are putting all their spare change into the business sector of the university to enhance what may be an ill-conceived, febrile vocationalism -- the antithesis of teaching critical acumen -- the College and Arts and Science remains a step child. Aside from the efforts of the USA Foundation to provide for the humanities, which some USA trustees vehemently resent, nothing much is being done to shore up that College’s role in making hirable graduates, which in any event ought to be viewed as an spin-off of A&S’s main effort to create in students the vocationalists’ anathema, namely a critical stance toward the culture at large. With honors programs underway in the A&S and the Mitchell College of Business, what’s becoming a fact of life is a two-tiered system of education in the university. The honor students get the gravy (during and after college); and the vast number who can hardly read and write and believe all they need is a credential are being allowed to drift through, passed along so that the numbers in the classroom can remain high enough for the faculty who don’t teach the honor students to justify their paychecks. As Dr. Woodrow Jones Jr., dean of A&M’s liberal arts college said: “It’s almost impossible for universities to turn people who have trouble reading and writing into computer-programming, Tolstoy-reading whiz kids in four years.” “You can’t get that superman without a super little boy,” Dr. Jones said, “and we’re not getting that super little boy [or girl] entering college.” (Dallas Morning News, 7/2/99)
Moreover, the two-tiered system is further reinforced by the permajuncts (permanent adjunct faculty) that staff the lower-division courses. The permajuncts can be exploited to pull the business buggy harder and with minimal cost to the university. It’s all part of the process of transforming the academic chariot into a limo for the honor students. But on no account will the second-tier faculty, driving the business buggy, be allowed to use their buggy whips. Students’ evaluations of permajuncts will be subjected to rigorous administrative scrutiny for any signs that students are feeling the lash of higher standards. The hanging carrot -- the merit pay incentive -- will be the exclusive fodder of the first-tier faculty. Those who fail to publish adequately to achieve first tier status will not receive tenure and will be lumped in with the second-tier permajuncts. Thus managed by business objectives, faculty, to keep students in need of credentials in their classes, will perform better -- that is, they will inflate the grades of their students to keep their jobs. This ruse is already well underway because state articulation allows students who earned a grade of D to transfer lower-division courses completed in the junior colleges where grade inflation is the name of the game.
However, there’s a major fly in the ointment of this business scenario and that is that the law of opposites will come into play -- when you create a polar extreme you will sooner or later gets its opposite. The opposite of entrepreneurial usurpation of academia is unionization and then judicial intervention which will, quite specifically, lay down the rules protecting permajuncts in colleges and universities. I kid you not. Judicial intervention, in my opinion, is very likely to come about first in the state of Washington where currently there are three lawsuits initiated by part-time faculty in process. These part-timers have taken actions in state courts against the community-college system. One lawsuit charges that the state owes more than $40-million in back payments to thousands of part-time instructors. A second suit, filed in August, says the state wrongfully denied health-care benefits to part-timers during the summer. The third suit, filed last year, involves 15 part-timers who are seeking damages for what they say are years of unpaid wages and overtime.
These suits, now a class action suit, are being handled by Bendich, Stobaugh, & Strong, the firm that recently won a seven-year legal battle against the Microsoft Corporation on behalf of 10,000 independent contractors, dubbed “permatemps.” Having seen, evidently, the hand writing on the wall, California Governor, Gray Davis, signed a bill last week that will provide thousands of part-time instructors at community colleges with health insurance and could also compensate them for office hours.
Given the fact that Alabama voters turned down higher taxes in Mobile County, and, statewide, turned down the lottery, the future does not look bright for the University of South Alabama. But who knows maybe the entrepreneurs on the Board of Trustees will see how dim their entrepreneurial light is, get true religion and put their energy into efforts to see that the university gets fair treatment in Montgomery. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink.