The DeFacto Closing of the Flagships
and Possible Replacements for Them
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
For reasons relating to the closure of our law school’s office over the holidays, I am writing this blog despite not having all the information one would like. The fundamental impetus for the post is a recent article about flagship state universities.
Desiring to join the supposedly “elite,” which only a few state schools have managed to do, it seems that state flagships are raising tuition and lessening the amount of aid available to those who can’t afford them (while giving more aid to the well-off). Those who can’t afford them include minorities and the poor of course, but today include lots of others besides, such as the lower middle class and, quite often, the middle class.
This strikes me as forsaking the very purpose for which state universities were founded -- a purpose vitally served when it became possible for Congress to pass the Morrill Act, which provided for the land grant state schools. Passage became possible in the early 1860s because southerners, who had precious little public education at any level in their own mostly ignorant states and opposed federal assistance to higher education, had walked out of Congress and gone South (where they should have but unfortunately did not stay, if you take my meaning). The state schools were to aid the people of their respective states by providing them with the education they needed in order to advance. In this they succeeded greatly. In one case, indeed, the so-called Wisconsin idea became nationally and maybe even world famous; it referred not just to the education provided, but also to the service provided a state’s citizens by the university.
Now, because academics are almost always in thrall to the siren song of elitism -- particularly because riches are not a possibility for most of them -- the governing idea has changed. Now it is to become “elite”: to have students with the highest possible SAT scores, to have professors who do the maximum possible research and gain national reputations from it, to get as much grant money as possible (so that everyone can pretend to be MIT, I suppose). As well, university presidents are to make a million dollars or more, or at least $750,000, or, at minimum, a paltry six hundred thousand or so: these figures are what your school pays if it is elite, after all. All this is pretended to be in service to the people of a state. But lost in it is the concept of good teaching for students of a state so that they may learn effectively, or even any teaching for state students who don’t “qualify” to be “elite.”
The failure to teach students who do not “qualify” as “elite,” and the effect it will have on the existence of two Americas, are profound things. This country has had relative social peace most of the time because it seemed, even to the poor and laboring classes, that there was hope for advancement. Much of the time, I would say most of the time, they were fooling themselves, but, fooling themselves or not, this is what was widely thought -- especially before it usually became vital in the last half of the 20th Century to get a college degree in order to advance. (As late as 1940, over half the country did not have even a high school degree.) But now we are where we are; even a college degree is an assurance of little; and lack of a college education is widely thought to usually condemn one to the ranks of the poor.
Moreover, although 70 percent or some other large percent of our colleges are defacto open admission schools, where one got a degree can be, and often is, as important as the fact that you did get one. In these circumstances, the defacto closing of the flagship state schools to the poor and minorities does not bode well for social peace. Nor should it. But academics are what they are, so, unless legislatures step in to put a stop to it, the defacto closing in order to become ever more “elite” is likely to continue.
What, then, can be done, if anything? There seem to me two possibilities: One is a vast improvement in academic standards and rigor at the nonflagship state schools, the usually open admission schools, that do educate minorities and the poor. The point would be to make those schools of such rigor and quality that a degree from them would come to be seen as a mark of accomplishment equal to the mark given (often falsely) by a flagship degree. But given the ideas prevailing today in academia, given the focus on pleasing the “customer” and getting his money, this alternative does not seem promising to me. It may even be other worldly.
A different alternative is one being attempted by our school. Having over eighteen years experience at providing rigorous legal education at low cost to people from the working class and minorities, we have asked the authorities of Massachusetts for permission to open an undergraduate program, specializing in history, that will replicate the rigor of the law school and, by means of using the same administrative and pedagogical techniques as the law school itself, will be low cost -- only $6,000 per year, which is peanuts in the world of academe today. An undergraduate degree from this school will be a mark of diligence and excellence. Other small groups of dedicated people could do what we are doing, whether they specialize in history, literature, psychology or any other field (so long as it is not one that requires huge expenditures for complex equipment and laboratories, but rather is a “book based” field (with “books,” these days, being comprised partly of works available on the internet). My frank guess is that, because of the professional conservatism of most academics, the possibility of small groups of people starting small, rigorous, inexpensive colleges to give fine education to people excluded from the flagships (and, of course, from the Ivies and Little Ivies as well) is a better and more likely alternative than the possibility of change in the open admission schools.
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel.
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