Putting Students First

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What a blessing to teach college for over 33 years! Educating folks on government and politics is my life’s work, and for the past 21 of those years it has been a particular joy to teach students at the University of North Georgia, where there are so many fine professors, staff, and administrators.

But recent disturbing trends have harmed students across the country. Indeed, on too many campuses there is an obsession with homogenization, bureaucratization, research, and money.

As acclaimed University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Dr. Parker Young notes, “Any college worth its salt is a true free marketplace of ideas.” Yet there has been a huge increase in campuses with constipated “hate speech” codes or climates hostile to free inquiry. In the Orwellian guise of protecting “diversity,” too many higher education administrators restrict basic speech rights and, often invoking “social justice,” too many professors substitute their political bias for teaching many sides of issues. So what should be the freest places in America are often the least free. As the famously liberal Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black warned, “the freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”

Universities should provide an outstanding education and vibrant campus life that spur students to grow intellectually, emotionally, and morally. We should not just teach them propaganda but help young people to reason critically. They need to question everything — including their professors — and always think analytically for themselves.

There has been a huge increase in campuses with constipated “hate speech” codes or climates hostile to free inquiry.

Yet there is also far too much emphasis on uniform “assessment” at college. In ever more freshman and sophomore classes, administrators make professors give the same assignments and use the same “rubric” to grade papers, à la high school. So much for hiring the best teachers and trusting them to create their own class assignments and grading methods. But so many bureaucrats crave the very standardization that has so stifled innovation and achievement in K-12 schools.

Education should help students learn, mature, and achieve the most meaningful lives possible. Yet administrators tend more and more to see students as little more than dollar signs, numbers, and means to get their offices, departments, or schools more funding, recognition, and power. Indeed, many administrators don’t teach and know little and care less about good instruction and the need for schools to create a challenging, yet nurturing, environment for students navigating a vulnerable time in their lives. This is a time for all college and university workers to recall who pays our salaries.

Sadly, too often students get real world lessons in Machiavellian campus politics. In fact, US Secretary of State and Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger concluded that university politics were positively “vicious.” In short, when administrators or professors put personal professional interests ahead of our students, we undermine the very purpose of education.

Alas, the biggest lessons I learned as a graduate student at a large, “prestigious” (see: “publish-or-perish”) university were how not to teach and how never to treat people. Classmates and I got daily doses of just how cold and uncaring too many bureaucrats and faculty can be.

Administrators tend more and more to see students as little more than dollar signs, numbers, and means to get their offices, departments, or schools more funding, recognition, and power.

Such ethical concerns go unnoticed as ever more administrators push precisely this publish-or-perish model. When a professor knows he has to get published in X number of officially approved journals by Y date, he easily calculates that time spent with students detracts from researching and writing — and thereby keeping his job. A closed office door with its window papered over and the light on inside tells students to go away. While some professors are inspiring teachers and researchers, that combination is uncommon.

Too many universities covet the prestige of U.S. News & World Report rankings, fallible as these are, and the government funding that follows an emphasis on research. Again, students’ education is sacrificed on the altars of reputation and money.

The surge in online courses (now fully dominant in the corona environment) further compromises instruction. Posting lessons on a computer is a poor substitute for in-person lectures and real-time discussions. There’s also far more cheating with online tests. Yet many schools covet online classes to make more money; digitized students don’t need buildings. One day, a salary-free computer may “teach” 100 such classes.

Making everything worse are the outrageous costs of tuition and textbooks that have followed the huge increases in government grants and loans to students in recent decades. Colleges have responded by spiking costs ever more, causing far too many students to go deeply in debt.

I pray that every university will rededicate itself to providing the best instruction at a reasonable cost to the largest variety of students, and will cherish those students in a warm, welcoming environment that celebrates a true diversity of ideas and free inquiry. May students always come first, and may all educators be Good Samaritans who make a special effort to see that no student is lost by institutional neglect.

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