Quick thoughts on Alan Jacobs’ post, “Colleges and Their Priorities”

From Alan Jacobs’ musings this morning on higher education:

“How about this? Maybe someone could have the imagination to say: By the quality of our teaching. I am waiting for some bold college president to come forth and say, “You won’t find especially nice dorms at our college. They’re clean and neat, but there’s nothing fancy about them. We don’t have a climbing wall. Our food services offer simple food, made as often as possible with fresh ingredients, but we couldn’t call it gourmet eating. There are no 55-inch flat-screen TVs in the lounges of our dorms. We don’t have these amenities because we decided instead to invest in full-time, permanent faculty who are genuinely dedicated to teaching and advising you well and preparing you for life after college. So if you want the state-of-the-art rec center, that’s cool, but just remember that the price you’ll pay for that is to have most of your classes taught by graduate students and contingent faculty, the first of whom won’t have the experience and the second of whom won’t have the time to be the kind of teachers you need (even when, as is often the case, they really want to be). Our priorities here are pretty much the reverse of those that dominate many other schools. So think about that, and make a wise decision.””

Aside from the food services part, I agree. And lest any reader confuse quality of teaching with quantity of teaching, there’s a post coming on that later.

This year I’ve had the chance to see quite a few other campuses, including those of some of the most venerable universities in the country and the world. I’ve been paying attention to amenities–not only those related to “student life,” but also those related in some way to academic programming (e.g., new or renovated buildings, etc.).

While the amenities arms race seems to have touched most corners of higher education, I have noticed that at many of the best institutions with the very best academic programming, the spending spree seems to have been focused on certain graduate and professional programs that are often separate cost centers (in most of these cases, we can assume that strategic plans and budgets accounted for both direct and indirect costs, such as overhead). Other programs seem to make due with “less smart, even if not quite stupid,” classrooms, offices and restrooms that look an awful lot like they might have several decades ago, etc.

As a faculty member, I can recognize that some academic programs require at least up-to-date, if not cutting edge, facilities, but funding for other updates should be evaluated against possible investment in academic programming. Laboratories, must be up-to-date. But many other academic programs (and much of student life) could make do with fewer and less frequent updates. Would that more donors and more potential students (and their parents) understood this and wanted it, too.

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