A Tradition Suspended

Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Museo Correr, Venice

Normally we would kick off the month of April with some serious humor.

We would take the occasion to push the envelope of current trends and lay out an all too plausible near future scenario.

Ideally, it might serve to trigger a classic satisfying April Fools double take while surfacing the logical consequences of some of our most cherished unquestioned assumptions.

Sadly, this is not the year to make use of this rhetorical devise, lest it add to the pain we are all experiencing.

Watch this space in the days ahead for some more somber reflections on the impact of the pandemic on University Futures.

An Alma Alma Mater

As back to school season swings into full gear those of us who have long since completed our terminal degrees find our inboxes decorated with alumni association emails touting impending homecoming weekends and alumni events. Almost invariably these missives focus on opportunities to meet up at bars or attend sporting events, preceded or followed by an urge to “give back” by writing a fat check to one’s alma mater.

Some enlightened schools make a weak attempt to recruit their alumni to offer mentoring to current students or to encourage them to hire the next generation of their graduates. If one is particularly fortunate one’s alma mater might actually offer one or two academically oriented speakers at an event before asking for donations over hors d’oeuvres and of course DRINKS. But sadly, Alumni culture always seems to circle back to SPORTS, DRINKS , and DONATIONS.

The truth of the matter is that the big schools are just playing the numbers to maximize donations. One is lucky to find perhaps 14% of the student body dedicated to the love of learning for its intrinsic value.

Only this tiny core have a true sense of “my research” that makes them look beyond the mandates of the syllabus for ways to integrate different treads of knowledge and to bring that learning to bear in creative ways outside the lecture hall.

There is but a scant 14% imbued with The Academic Sublime — that sense of awe and wonder over the Ideal of the University as a force sustaining Civilization through the ages. This is the chill that goes up one’s spine setting foot on campus as one is overtaken by an awareness of the boundless potential of the Future. It is the Academic Sublime that gives rise to a soul sustaining optimism despite the sorry state of today’s Universities with their all too often watered down academics, party cultures, toxic political correctness, and ceaseless assaults on academic freedom.

Beyond the 14% there is a wide band of mediocre to good students who aren’t necessarily averse to learning, as long as it doesn’t clash with their politics or get in the way of their social lives. There is also a significant number who see college as a speed bump in the way of taking a position with friends or family, or who quite honestly just want to party.

Since, in aggregate, they don’t care about academics, but do represent the biggest slice of the donor pie, it makes sense to focus on offering them bread and circuses in the form of sports teams and alumni bar nights and booze cruises.

What this doesn’t do is provide the lost 14% with a way to continue to participate in the Intellectual Life of their Alma Mater. Only a tiny fraction of them will have found a birth as faculty at some other institution of higher education; and while the rest can participate in professional societies, those tend to be overly specialized and highly compartmentalized disciplinary silos devoid of the kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization that makes the Campus such a special kind of space.

They represent a huge untapped resource for our Universities of the Future! They are the very individuals whom we would have recruited as students had we been founded in time for their college years and who would now be our alumni had we been fortunate enough to have instructed them. They are largely alienated from their actual alma maters, many have funds they would be loath to donate to those schools, and all have rich bodies of experience, expertise, and intellectual insights that are seen as being utterly irrelevant by the universities they attended.

We can give them a home, we can help them network and found new ventures, we can tap their knowledge, we can give them the community to take their art, science, and commerce to the next level, we can adopt them and become their Alma Alma Mater!

N.B. We will explore exactly what this concept means and how it might be formalized as a League of Extraordinary Scholars embracing both disaffected alumni and potentially unlettered independent scholars and entrepreneurs in future posts.

Labor Day — The Organizational Imperative

On this Labor Day, we can’t help but notice a certain irony in the state of campus labor relations. A significant percentage of university students entering careers in academia have only been able to do so due to the fruits of their parents’ Union Bargaining. It was Unions that enabled their families to start “college funds” for them while they were still in diapers .If it were not for the union scale wages earned by their middle class families, no amount of state and federal aid would have been enough to make higher education economically feasible.

But during their gradate study, and subsequently upon graduation, they find themselves locked into quasi indentured servitude as “teaching assistants”, itinerant “instructors”, and “adjunct” faculty, locked out of the Tenure Track benefits won by past generations of Unionized Professors. We have thus allowed our campus labor relations to degenerate into a two tier system with the benefits of unionization restricted to an ever shrinking and aging slice of the labor pool.

Even worse, the precarious position most young academics find themselves in leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by tenured faculty and career blackmail by unethical students using their power of feedback though platforms like Rate My Professors to punish anyone daring to demand a high level of intellectual rigor in their courses. The deal becomes, “an easy A in exchange for a shot at having one’s teaching contract renewed” with the implicit threat of student boycotts of hard classes.

In a wider culture that values paper credentials over substantive learning, this creates a very rational but ultimately toxic dynamic in which the tenuously engaged academic lives in fear that an honest grade would trigger a bad student review that could end his or her career.

With such lopsided bargaining power, it is particularly risky for grad students to start down the road to unionization and sadly those campuses where the benefits of collective bargaining are most desperately needed are no doubt the hardest to unionize.

This is not to say that Tenure for a much wider swath of academia is the answer, since one can point to countless examples of abuse in that system. When faculty unions use their power to insulate poorly performing professors from accountability and drive up salary costs to the point that insufficient funds are left to employ the next generation of the professorate, they become indirectly complicit in grinding grad student instructors and adjunct faculty into poverty.

The current status quo could hardly be more dysfunctional making it a clear imperative for upcoming future faculty to organize and for founders of Universities of the Future to reach out to Union leaders to develop win-win scenarios that can restore balance to the bargaining table.

Summer Intersession Update

While our pages have been quiescent over the Summer Intersession, we’ve had a lot of actively going on in anticipation of the start of the Fall Semester.

We are happy to report that Apple has resolved a configuration issue with their outbound email servers that was silently preventing messages originating in their mac.com, me.com and icloud.com email hosting domains from reaching target email accounts in our Quadrangle.Info domain. To the best of our knowledge their servers are now correctly configured to permit email to reach us. However, if we seem to be non-responsive to an email you’ve sent to us, you can always fall back to our online webmail contact form which isn’t subject to any such problems.

We are continuing to refine our back end infrastructure with an eye to future software development and the provision of more effective collaboration services.

We are also working through the amazing body of literature related to the history, failings, and future of higher education. Expect a steady stream of book reviews and commentary as the Fall Semester unfolds.