Excellence without Scare Quotes

A shout-out to the editors at the Daily Illini, who’ve cast a critical eye on Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s “Visioning Excellence” initiative.   Noting the low level of student participation in the on-line survey, the DI argues that students are “apathetic”  because the superficial way the survey is designed stands in stark contrast to the severity of the crises facing  the U of I.   The DI writes: “ Word clouds filled with vague buzzwords are not going to fix the University’s reputation. Buzzwords will not entice bright and promising students from around the nation and world to continue their education at Illinois.”  Chancellor Wise would do well to heed the DI’s injunctions.

After the experience of the last few years, some of us in the CFA  have trouble using “excellence” without scare quotes.  We would like “excellence” to come in for much more thorough going definition and careful consideration.  While we appreciate Chancellor Wise’s attempts to refocus all our attention on the University’s  future, decades of budget cuts and tuition raises, and bulking-up  of administrative positions and salaries at the expense of  faculty and support staff have put the future of the UI very much at risk.  Then there is the privatization and corporatization of the University.  We risk working in a “knowledge industry” delivering units of “educational product” at the possible lowest cost per unit  to students defined as “customers”   unless we take hold of our future.   It is fair to say that this is the vision of the future held by many of our high level administrators, because this is the language they use on a regular basis.

What would real excellence in education look like?  It’s a much longer discussion, and one that we’re actively having with our colleagues across campus.  It’s possible to make a few  basic points here, from an email conversation CFA members have been having.

Education must reach and teach the whole student.  It is not the same as training. One of our members writes  that it should “give our students the whole range of mental tools they need to deal wisely with what comes their way….It would be disastrous if this university confused wisdom with the accumulation of information or any kind of technical expertise.”

It should be as accessible as possible to all students, and especially students from underserved backgrounds – defined by race, ethnicity and economic status.  It  should strive to become more accessible, not less so.  Continuing progress toward this goal is central to public higher education.  As one of our members says:  “It’s a community, not a commodity.”

It should allow students (and faculty) to make intellectual false starts, to try out directions that don’t  always work out.  In other words, there should be enough tolerance in the system that  we can acknowledge that a lot of learning and knowledge accumulates even when the grant is turned down, or the career takes a different direction.  Majors can change; departments can change; faculty can redirect their programs, sometimes away from the most prestige and biggest funding sources.  These aren’t mistakes in the same way a bad information management system is.

An excellent educational system  will not insist that the “marketplace of ideas” knows best about what majors, departments, programs should be supported.   Long-term educational thinking should preserve room for unfashionable ideas.  The book, for example, may make a comeback!

It should address social inequities intellectually as well as practically.

Excellence, or maybe just high quality education can’t be imposed from the top down.  It comes from the faculty and students, not from the upper  administration, the Board of Trustees or the corporate funders.  It can’t result from a branding  or marketing campaign, and it can’t be delivered by expensively paid outside consultants.  As we’ve seen, people who think it can are dangerously deluded.

Excellence has to be supported from the bottom up.   Faculty and students have to have adequate financial support (including affordable  tuition and decent salaries and benefits),  excellent resources, including a secure and full-time staff.  Knowledge and skill needs to be kept on campus, not forced out through staff cuts, outsourcing, sub-contracting and automation.  As one of our members puts it, perhaps we should think in terms of a co-op model,  as opposed to an extractive and corporate model.   The people who have the major stake are the participants, and management takes a secondary, not a primary role.

The democratic and legal rights of employees to collectively bargain need to be respected at all levels –as the University should want all peoples’ rights to be respected.

It depends on academic freedom.  All faculty have to be able to teach ideas that might offend donors, corporations, politicians and governments, and even our students.

These are some of our ideas about excellence.  We would love to hear more from all our readers.

Susan Davis, for the CFA .

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