Growing Pains of the Multiversity

Last month a student activist at the University of Michigan found virtue in that much beset institution, the multiversity. Now another Michigan man speaks up for the multiversity’s faculty and scholars. Professor Willcox has been chairman of the history department at Ann Arbor since 1965.

by William Willcox

In the past two years a number of articles in the Atlantic have explored aspects of campus unrest. The controversy that some of these articles have aroused suggests that no two observers agree on the meaning of what is going on; the only agreement seems to be that American universities are in a period of turbulence, and that the larger the university the greater the Sturm und Drang. Recent exposure to the troubles of the University of Michigan is my excuse for venturing reflections on this steadily growing problem. It is one about which I am no more expert than any other concerned professor; but the subject, as Clemenceau said of war, is too important to be left to the experts.

The central question is what the forces are that generate academic turbulence. Until that question is faced, discussion of remedies is pointless. The unrest is, I believe, not only nationwide but also too deepseated to be easily or quickly eliminated; its causes, however differently they may manifest themselves at Ann Arbor or Berkeley or any other campus, lie in the very nature of the large university. Unrest, in other words, is bred by the system, and is the price we are paying for the forced growth of higher education.

In the Atlantic (November, 1965) Professor Howard Mumford Jones insisted that “university education is a privilege for the competent, not a right to be claimed by the many.”

Whether or not this should be true, it is in fact becoming less true every day. The A.B. degree, now more than ever before, is a prerequisite for success in life, and our society accepts the proposition that everyone who is minimally qualified is entitled to one. Students regard it, perhaps unconsciously, almost as much their right as the right to vote; and as population grows, the federal and state governments pour more and more millions into the system to make sure that sufficient degrees are available.

But money alone is not enough for expansion. Building new classrooms, offices, and dormitories and training or recruiting new staff take time; and the pressure of swelling enrollment never leaves the necessary time. Universities in general, and state universities in particular, are consequently in an ongoing crisis because they do not have the facilities they need, at any given moment, to cope with that moment’s problems of overcrowding. The effect is twofold, student unrest and faculty unrest.

The students find themselves adrift in a vast, bustling, but essentially formless community. Their classes are usually too large for any giveand-take with the professor, and those of them who corner him in his office have won at hide-and-seek against heavy odds. Their dormitory is a population, not a social unit, and they tend to escape into apartments — lairs which, when they find them, are too cluttered for studying, so that their search for study space carries them even into the library stacks. Far from having a vast smorgasbord of human knowledge and experience spread before them to select from, their choice of courses is limited by distribution requirements; and their intellectual experience may also be limited to soaking up material and regurgitating it on examinations. They have reason to wonder, as one of them recently wrote in the Michigan Daily, whether they are “learning much of consequence to their lives or of relevance to their society.”

These complaints are not new. Classes were too large when I was in college, contact with faculty members too meager, and we complained about being spoon-fed. But the situation is far worse now. Free time is disappearing, as one university after another, in an effort to use its plant more efficiently, reforms its calendar by curtailing vacations. Admissions standards are going up, and with them the academic caliber of the student body, so that competition for high grades becomes keener; the many students who hope to go on to a respectable graduate school need an undergraduate record of A’s and B’s, which is out of reach of the majority. Young men and women, short of space and time, are competing against one another in subjects that often seem to them inconsequential. Small wonder they feel tension.

The therapy of action

Although they may find outlet for tension in unpolitical ways, such as experimentation with sex or drugs or the newest art form, political opposition to the university administration has the appeal of bringing them together in the united action. They share in some measure the disgust with the status quo felt by the radical activist, and the longer their patience is tried, the more open they are to his argument that force is the only way to get change. But this does not mean that they share his goal.

The goal of the new radicalism; alias the “Movement,” in its extreme form is to overturn the whole structure of the modern university. Stephan Weissman cogently expressed in the Atlantic (October, 1966) what is wrong with that structure, and why the “Movement” aims to bring about “the end of administration control, a sharing of power even in the classroom between teacher and student, and the creation of an atmosphere of autonomy in which individuals and communities with[in] the university can engage in their own politics — be they right, left, or even pornopolitical.” The existing academic system, he continues, has no legitimate authority, and no compromise with it is possible. “Force will continue to be necessary and justified as long as the American university deprives students of their voice in decisions that affect them, supports the politics of a repressive status quo, and subordinates intellectual activity to security clearances and the national interest.”

This is a call to revolution, but those who seem to heed the call may in fact be far from revolutionaries. When an administration appears to students to be both arbitrary and static, they will rally behind the radical activist for the sake of action. Few want to destroy the university, to judge by the Michigan experience, but many want to wake it up. They do not need to know precisely what more they want. Their demand for “student power,” I am convinced, is emotional as much as political, and does not necessarily mean that they wish to exercise any power beyond that of agitating. Agitation, by publicizing the need for reform, jolts not only officialdom but also the faculty.

The faculty role

Professors are not spontaneous reformers. They are so deeply immersed in problems of their own, created by the mushroom growth of the university, that they cannot concentrate for long on student problems. Any teacher worth his salt is interested in students. They are one of his main concerns, but to assume that they can or should be his only one is unrealistic. Two other concerns are equally important to him, and they are worth a moment’s scrutiny. They are his own research and his role in his department.

Research means much more to an academic than promotions or salary increases. It is his surest way to keep alive intellectually, and hence to be a stimulating teacher, and for one kind of teaching it is an absolute prerequisite. Graduate students — and this is a point often overlooked in the endless debate about the connection or gulf between scholarship and teaching — can be trained in research only by a practitioner who keeps his knowledge fresh. Graduate programs are a vital function of the university, and graduate enrollments are soaring. A professor who does no research is useless to the graduate school. His department is unlikely to keep him to teach only undergraduates, and he either leaves for a small college or joins the administration.

The faculty member’s departmental role is even less understood off the campus than his research. A department is, among other things, a business operation, with a yearly budget that often exceeds half a million dollars; running such a business requires both nonacademic administrative assistance and a great deal of time from the academic staff.

Almost every professor, in addition to his teaching and research, has to play a part in this departmental housekeeping. Who will handle graduate admissions, or advise M.A. and Ph.D. candidates when admitted? Is a visitor needed to replace Professor Pundit while he is on leave, and if so, how is one to be found? Are the teaching fellows or assistants getting the supervision that they need? (The answer is invariably no.) Is the undergraduate honors program, or the freshman survey course, in need of overhauling? (The answer is invariably yes.) The problems these questions suggest, and hundreds more, are directly related to the department’s teaching function; but they distract from teaching itself.

Recruiting new talent

Another related problem, which consumes quite as much time as housekeeping, is the recruitment of new staff. Here every prestigious and would-be prestigious institution in the country is competing against all others at every level, from the newest Ph.D.’s to the greatest celebrities; and the locus of competition is the individual department. Obtaining a bright young assistant professor is a minor triumph, obtaining a full professor is a major one, and hours and hours of work go into both.

When a vacancy occurs, an ad hoc departmental committee asks authorities all over the country to suggest candidates, whose names go into a file that soon bulges with relevant and irrelevant information; the committee then rank-orders the names according to its judgment, or failing that, its hunch. The highest man on the list who is temptable is asked to the campus, and unless he puts his foot in his mouth, receives an offer. (Ritual decrees that such an offer be called recruiting, whereas an offer from an outside institution to a staff member is called raiding; if the effort to recruit fails, or the effort to raid succeeds, the man in question is written off as less talented than the department had supposed.) This is an elaborate game that is extravagant of time, a kind of academic cricket match; but no way has been found to simplify or accelerate it.

As a department grows, housekeeping and recruitment demand more hours of everyone. The larger the staff, in theory, the more chores can be performed without increasing anyone’s burden. But the theory does not square with the facts. A department seems to be an organism that grows in complexity, as if it were subject to Parkinson’s Law, faster than it grows in size: the more members it has, the more work it requires of each to keep it functioning.

No time for students

These multifarious activities of the professor preclude his spending much time with students. He talks at them in the classroom more than with them outside it, and he has little idea of their problems and dissatisfactions. A freshman may be in touch with his instructor, and a Ph.D. candidate is almost sure to be in touch with the scholar directing his dissertation; but except for these two ends of the academic spectrum, little real communication exists between faculty and students. Lack of it is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. The fault lies in the nature of the university.

Communication between the student body and administrative policymakers, to judge by the Michigan experience, is as poor as that between students and faculty. This again is nobody’s choice. The danger of appearing to rule by fiat is obvious to any administrator, for students have repeatedly proved that when they believe they are being governed arbitrarily, they can paralyze the government.

The way to avoid this danger, however, is far from obvious. Consultation with student leaders in advance of a decision is no panacea. Who are the leaders, and whom can they lead? The editors of the undergraduate newspaper have influence, but their views may be far from representative. The members of the elected student council have little more than a hunch about the diverse and shifting moods of their vast constituency (only a fraction of which has turned out for the election), and if their hunch proves wrong, they are discredited. No one, in short, can speak confidently for the entire student population, and it cannot be consulted as a whole.

I am not saying that students must therefore continue to play their old passive role. Far from it. Some of them — how large a percentage on any campus no one knows — are more and more insistently demanding a part, if only a consenting part, in decisions that affect them. When their demand is not met, the effect on the university is serious. To say that their agitation is intolerable, that they must conform or go home, is beside the point. They are publicizing their discontent in a highly wasteful way, which is as distracting to them as to everyone else; but it is also a highly effective way. As to whether it is tolerable, what alternative is there? If agitation cannot be stopped, it has to be tolerated.

It can be stopped only when policy-makers obtain a sufficient measure of student consent to allay unrest. But this is more easily said than done. For a lot of nonsense is talked about establishing lines of communication between the faculty and administration on the one hand, and the student body on the other. These two parts of the academic community are different in kind: one is the institutional university, in which a well-organized teaching and administrative staff has its own internal channels of communication, however inadequate they may be; the other is a body of students that is institutionally amorphous. Even if this body has a collective voice, which is doubtful, finding a way to hear it defies the wit of man.

Listening for ideas

Although the communication problem, put in terms of twenty or thirty thousand students, is probably insoluble, much can be done in terms of more modest, piecemeal changes to get in touch with accessible areas of opinion. A department’s graduate students, for example, have something worthwhile to say about their program; so have the undergraduates of a large college about evaluating their courses and teachers. In such limited areas some communication often takes place already. But in my experience it is woefully inadequate, and I refuse to believe that professors and students, working together, could not find ways to improve it. Any improvement, no matter how humdrum and inconspicuous, would at least demonstrate the faculty’s willingness to learn from those it teaches.

Professors and administrators, I have been arguing, are so preoccupied with keeping the system going that they do not consider reforming it until student agitation forces their hand. Whether the ideas behind the agitation are sound or impractical, expressed with proper decorum or improper tumult, they are a stimulating challenge to things as they are. To respond to the challenge negatively, by a mere buttressing of the status quo, is to ensure continuing unrest. Somehow — and I do not pretend to know how — means must be found to listen for ideas, and to select and act upon the good ones in concert with the students themselves.

They are, after all, the customers, and their criticism deserves to be heard.