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Faculty Forum Papers


"CONSIDER
THE
ALTERNATIVES"



by

Gary H. Tiedeman
President
OSU Faculty Senate


October 1989
This is a slightly revised version of an address
presented University Day, September 22, 1989.
It was widely quoted in Oregon's popular press

University Day Address

1989

"Consider the Alternatives"

Gary H. Tiedeman, Faculty Senate President


A Senate President has several unofficial obligations to be met within this annual address. He or she should:

#1. Commend and encourage faculty colleagues for their good work;

#2. Include a "plug" for the Faculty Senate, the AOF, and the AAUP (I have just done so);

#3. Say something provocative and iconoclastic, but without being downright crude about it; and

#4. Try to be at least half as entertaining as the OPA speaker -- but not more entertaining than
the University President.

Along with obligations, there are wonderful opportunities here. This is the day, after all, when our ship sets sail upon a sea of students and research projects for yet another voyage into waters only partially charted. What better day for casting plans and dreams windward, for laying up ample cargo and sighting new destination? In other words, for expressing some of those concerns a faculty member could and should express about the conditions and prospects of higher education?

To convey everything I had originally intended proves to be an impossibility. My solution to this predicament will be to paint some summary sketches of what my subject matter might have been under each of three alternate titles, thereby covering a broad expanse of territory within a relatively brief run of pages. The reader, then, as the main title specifies, is invited to "Consider the Alternatives."

Alternate Title Number 1, for example, might have been "Sailing Uncharted Waters" or "Batten Down the Hatches," in tune with the nautical phrasings employed a few lines ago. In that speech, I would liken our university to an oceangoing vessel, captain and crew alike vigilantly alert to surprise storms, submersed minefields, and torpedoes (something rifling toward us as "friendly fire") while we navigate the deep seas of academe, never stay too long in port, and strive to avoid becoming another Exxon Valdez. State legislatures become unpredictable riptides in this allegory, governors become daring pirates who board us under the flag of "ally," and chancellors become lighthouse keepers to whom we look for guidance and, if necessary, for rescue. Add the images of shipwreck, exploration, seasickness, and mutiny, and the possibilities here are nearly endless.

We're surrounded by hungry "schools" of fish, of course, some intelligent and inquisitive, some listless bottom-dwellers, some vicious and predatory. And what class of vessel are we, and what do we aspire to becoming? A specialized research ship, a la the Calypso? A tugboat? A steamboat paddle wheeler? A destroyer? A garbage scow? A streamlined yacht, cutting sharply through the waves with the aid of the best, state-of-the-art technology and equipment? Or, perhaps, a supply ship, plugging along, passively and reliably, in support of the rest of the fleet?

Which takes me to Alternative Title Number 2, "Getting Off the Bandwagon," or "The Perils of the Corporate University." In this speech, I launch my own torpedoes at those who would seek to define the contemporary university as, fundamentally, an instrument in behalf of economic development. Just a few weeks ago, our State Board of Higher Education held a first-ever joint meeting with the Economic Development Commission. At this joint meeting, our Governor identified the state's educational priority as raising Oregonians' earnings and ensuring that children can find jobs when they grow up: "Number 1, we want Oregon's personal income back at or exceeding the national average." More to my immediate point, however, the Governor made no comment about the quality or character of the education the children of the state are to receive (or the quality and character of the graduates themselves as human beings) -- other than the implication that all of education should lead directly to jobs and to enhancement of personal income.

Now for me, and I think for most of you, a university which deserves the title "university" is a place that educates not just for employment and higher salary but for analytic thought, for introspection, for aesthetic appreciation, for international communality, for ethnic and gender equality, all of which turn out to be, interestingly, a society's very best assurances of a strong economy with full employment! The true university is also the last and best bastion of free, unfettered, independent, often non-utilitarian, and frequently critical thought, this entire set of remarks standing as case in point. Its repertoire of free and critical thought must include the lovely irony of a Marxian perspective of economic determinism, it must include programs and advocacy of economic development, but it must also include the voices of those who challenge economic priorities and those who PROFESS that a society's stature and progress is best measured not by its Gross National Product or its Wall Street averages but by its morality, its altruism, its poetry, its art, its sense of history, its coherency of written expression.

I urge you, whatever your discipline, your department of affiliation, or your research agenda, to join me in resisting any tendency toward converting the traditional university into a corporate arm, to join me in questioning the sagacity of faculty salary packages, whether based upon video poker or upon some other non-general fund gamble, that are linked overrestrictively to economic development contributions. Those affiliated with colleges which are most naturally aligned with economic development potential (e.g., Business, Forestry, Agriculture, Engineering) must be most outspoken of all in broadcasting the critical role of the philosopher, the social scientist, the biochemist, the musician, the nutritionist, in the authentic university, and in demanding that their equally sound and valuable contributions are properly rewarded, both psychically and financially.

The health of a state, like that of a family or an individual, is indeed linked to its economic security. But wealth is not salvation, as the tombstone of many a millionaire will attest. Long-term strength and integrity may depend less upon economic indicators than upon the constant and vocal expression of the best minds gathered together in that curious locale called "the college campus." We have the combined expertise, if we can muster forth the initiative and the proficiency, to best advise and influence others on the delicate interactions and balances between industrial proliferation and the death of the rain forest, between cultural literacy and pursuit of profit, between rampant consumerism and global warming, between unchecked population growth and mass starvation. We can assist and encourage appropriate economic development, but we must not allow the political priorities of others to shape or corrupt the content of higher education.

I now come to a third alternate title, with what I consider an alluring metaphor: "THE PROFESSOR AS SPOTTED OWL". That controversial little creature is what we sometimes resemble. Think about it. We hide away in remote reaches where no one can see or hear us except when we come out occasionally and make entertaining little noises. Our livelihood depends upon the preservation of "old growth forests" made up of classrooms, offices, laboratories, and libraries. We're rather cute and cuddly (and let's not forget "wise") as long as we stay out of everyone's way and only show up on the media in PBS documentaries. And we and what we stand for are relatively expendable when someone with a noisier and more pragmatic chainsaw comes along. Our dignity and tradition, rather than any physical lack of expressive capability, prevent our flying off to our own rescue. Yet, we have no Sierra Club, no Audubon Society, to mount an expensive and articulate campaign in our defense. In other cultures not so far away in this time, the university professor is revered and protected. We must begin to do a better, more convincing job of elucidating our place, and higher education's, in the cultural-intellectual version of the ecological chain. Otherwise, our nesting ground will be depleted, and we shall observe the march of progress from a precarious vantage point not far removed from that of the passenger pigeon and the wooly mammoth.

These, then, are three alternative titles and topics, each containing alternatives within them. I had once intended several others. One underlining the importance of expanded faculty involvement in our campus governance proceedings, for example, as is the eventual wont of every individual who served the office I now occupy. Another paralleling the continuing education we all require in our role as educator to the effective like span of the computer software upon which we have become so dependent. One condemning the State Board for its shocking willingness to forego faculty trust by capitulating in the reversal of the semester conversion decision. And, of course, one castigating the shortsightedness of a political regime which arrogantly presumes that an arbitrarily determined percentage of any university's programs are superfluous and which expects gratitude for blatantly insufficient salary increases achieved via the cannibalization of colleagues.

If the three main titles I have sketched for you share a common theme, it is the theme of alternative routes into the 1990s and the 21st Century. We can be a significant factor in selection of the best route, one that is not exclusively superhighway but which includes scenic, historical, and humanistic overviews along the way. We can learn to become more effective players in the fast-paced, high tech, real-world games of influence and persuasion we ourselves have helped to create and about which we possess ostensible expertise. Alternative? We wither, we stumble, we beg and apologize, we turn what is left of the other cheek. And higher education in the State of Oregon from featured star to supporting player, from honored guest to maidservant.

The future is ours; like what it brings or not, most of us will be a part of it for many years to come. That future will always be shaped in large part by our surroundings: a sociologist such as myself is hardly one to deny that. But we needn't be totally shaped. It is our mission, and our responsibility, to apply our combined expertise to the shaping of our state, our region, our nation, our planet. I beg you: CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES.

Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.