In Defense of the Multiversity

Mr. Rapoport. a junior and a journalism major at the University of Michigan, is editor in chief of the Michigan DAILY. His blunt criticism of university officials led to an unsuccessful campus administration attempt, earlier this year, to prevent his nomination to that post.

For the past three years I have been eagerly swallowing and spouting a torrent of criticism against the bureaucratic, government-dominated, impersonated tool of the American middle-class establishment, the multiversity.

I have grown up in absurdity with Paul Goodman, who convinced me that “at present students are the major exploited class ... in the United States.” I have sensed the academic loneliness Mario Savio found at Berkeley’s “depersonalized unresponsive bureaucracy,” where it is “impossible usually to meet with anyone but secretaries.” And I have eagerly quoted other student activists who contend that “the multiversity is not an education center, but a highly efficient industry; it produces war machines, a few token ‘peaceful’ machines and enormous numbers of safe, highly skilled, and respectable automatons to meet the immediate needs of business and government.”

Yet in spite of all the drawbacks, I and many of my friends actually find ourselves enjoying rewarding and productive lives at the multiversity. What the critics fail to recognize is that the multiversity works best for a certain kind of student — one who will recognize and tap the extraordinary resources of a major universityFor the multiversity can never really work for a student unless he is willing to exploit the school. Encouragingly, more and more students appear to be shunning the anti-multiversity clich’s and are busy carving out meaningful curricular and extracurricular lives for themselves.

I do not want to minimize the fact that there is validity to the activist view of the school as a government-dominated dictatorship ruled from the administration building. It is not hard to see how one can grow to believe he is trapped into a system where education is the opiate of the student, who is only being groomed for a slot at Dow Chemical, where he will build a better napalm.

Still, the multiversity can work for the student willing to bend his IBM card. For a university bureaucracy is surprisingly vulnerable to enterprising students. In fact, any student willing to extend himself can walk all over the clumsy university establishment. Many bright and confident students make bigness work in their own interests.

Bucking the establishment

Precisely how does one go around the entrenched academic system that one Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader described as “spiritual brutality inflicted by a faculty of well-meaning and nice men who give you forty courses, one hundred twenty units, fifteen hundred to two thousand impersonal lectures and over three hundred over-sized discussions”? About the only prerequisites needed are a bit of determination and willingness to tangle with the multiversity establishment. Instead of listening to academic counselors, many students have learned how to scout around and find the best courses on their own. After all, the numerical prospects for stimulating instruction are reasonable when a student can choose among 3000 teachers offering thousands of courses. When one accidentally falls into the wrong course, the solution is simply to transfer out. For example, I dropped a frightful 100-student economics lecture in favor of a 15-man seminar with author Allan Seager last semester. All it took was a few minutes of paper work.

Faculty attention is largely a function of student initiative. An English teacher aptly summed up the situation in class here recently when he complained, “No one ever comes up to the office to talk. I guess the students don’t have the time they’re too busy protesting alienation and anomie.” Even in those dreadful 600-student introductory lectures (everyone gets trapped into one no matter how smart he thinks he is), I’ve found instructors surprisingly available for conferences. They are usually willing to talk as long as you’re willing to listen.

There are other solutions to the academic deficiencies at the multiversity. Many students take independent-study courses, which amount to tutorials, where the student and professor work out the curriculum jointly. There are also mechanisms to reduce academic pressure. For example, I’m taking two reading courses this summer so I can carry a reduced academic load in the fall. My teachers and I drew up a joint reading list. I’ll get credit after taking an exam and submitting papers in the fall.

Subverting the system

Still the critics will argue convincingly that it makes no difference how good the classes are — they’re all plugged into the system. “The university is well structured, well tooled to turn out people with the sharp edges worn off,” claims Mario Savio. The view is that students are mere programs to be shoved into the computer.

The thinking is misleading, however, because it assumes students are naive, ready and willing to be duped into the materialistic American way by the university establishment. It’s the same argument voiced by the House Un-American Activities Committee—naive students will be duped into Communism by mere exposure to it.

But students aren’t as gullible as Savio or Joe Pool might think. Not only do many make the school work for themselves, some have even discovered ways of using the system to subvert itself. For example, one group of graduate students here is actively engaged in a research project to study the interlocking directorates of major American corporate executives. The study will be done via computer, with programs written from official records.

Similarly, students have used official university-sanctioned student organizations in their own interests despite the Students for a Democratic Society view that “the extracurricular life is ordered according to in loco parentis theory, which ratifies the administration as the moral guardian of the young.”

For example, a Michigan Daily story several years ago about a dean of women who was notifying parents of students dating interracially prompted the dean’s resignation. Activists who justifiably complain about the cozy business relationships of Regents to the school had reason for encouragement when the paper published a story about the business relationship of Regent Eugene Power, chairman (then president) of University Microfilms Incorporated, a Xerox subsidiary, to the university library system.

A Michigan attorney general’s investigation ensued, and Power was found in “substantial conflict of interest.” The Regent resigned immediately. In the aftermath the furor spurred passage of a tight state conflict-of-interest law. This spring Michigan college presidents and other top administrators were told to give up their cozy directorships with various banking, utility, and commercial enterprises.

Similarly, the paper recently uncovered and printed a confidential Defense Department equal-employment study charging that the school was “basically for rich white students.” (All that the university administration could reply was that “the report should not have been made public.”)

Pressure by competition

Students have also learned how to combat aggressively other aspects of the university establishment. One is a steadfast school refusal to build a bookstore that would compete with the “list price” commercial bookstores in Ann Arbor. As a result, a professor of nuclear engineering and a group of hardworking students opened a new book service that sells texts at a 10 percent discount. Veteran book merchants have suddenly been discounting some of their wares in an effort to woo back old customers.

Similarly, there are signs that a new student rental union will begin to combat effectively the local real estate establishment that gets upwards of $250 a month for a small (two bedrooms, bath, kitchenette, living room) apartment.

It appears that some of the student efforts arc beginning to pay off. After repeated student urging, the school has begun building a selfcontained 1200-man residential college. The students have helped to develop the curriculum for the Oxford-style unit, which will emphasize seminars and regular faculty contact. Seen as a prototype for all future undergraduate education, the venture is luring some teachers formerly preoccupied with graduate instruction into doing more undergraduate teaching. The school has also initiated a pass-fail grading system and is liberalizing course and distribution requirements to take some of the academic heat off.

Too soon to give up

There are those who argue that given the conflicting interests of students, faculty, administrators, and Regents, the multiversity can never really work. Even if some students can flourish in the environment, the multiversity system itself is doomed. Witness the fate of ousted University of California president Clark Kerr, the mediator who tried to keep everyone happy.

Many students who accept this argument have, ironically, fallen into their own trap. They have dropped their activist efforts to rock the system and become totally alienated. Since “school is hopeless,” they turn to rock ‘n’ roll bands, drugs, film-making, bartending, postal work, or other pursuits. Instead of trying to change the multiversity system, they end up joining the passive ranks and giving the multiversity “ogre” more room to perpetuate itself.

I can’t share their pessimism. It’s been too exciting tangling with the multiversity establishment to give up so early in the game. What I’ve seen during three years in Ann Arbor has convinced me that there is plenty of room in the multiversity for the student willing to grapple with it. And the hope is that the innovations rebellious students are now prompting will lead to humanizing the multiversity into a place where any student would feel welcome.