Edit Desk: Is the Mountain of Progress falling flat?

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Two weeks ago, I was at a dinner celebrating the accomplishments of a research group I am involved with on campus. 

One of Lehigh’s most senior administrators was at the event and gave a few introductory remarks to the audience. The individual spoke about how proud they were of Lehigh’s progress in the past year, rattling off a renovated Chandler-Ullmann Hall, the opening of the new SouthSide Commons residence and a new College of Health soon to open on campus next fall. 

It soon became apparent to me, as I listened to the administrator who refused to answer any of my questions this semester, that the speech was clearly reused from previous events. No effort was made to tie back the remarks to the specific research program he was speaking to or to connect with the specific audience on that night. 

It was also clear to me that this administrator defined Lehigh’s success purely in terms of numbers and buildings. 

I’ve spent a significant part of this semester talking with an array of individuals across campus in all sorts of different roles, from the deans of Lehigh’s colleges to staff members, students and professors. You learn a lot from listening. 

I’ve listened enough to know that our acceptance rate rose 10 percent in just one year. I’ve listened enough to know Lehigh cut its sustainable development minor program while in the midst of the creation of a new college and a $1 billion fundraising campaign (without a formal announcement or responses to my requests for comment). I’ve listened enough to know that counseling services has been asking for a new therapist for five years and has had roughly the same budget for 30 years, while Lehigh places more emphasis on recruiting students who come from demographics that are more likely to require mental health services while at school.  

Does that sound like a Path to Prominence to you?

Needless to say, the administrator’s speech that I sat through fell flat to me. 

It reminded me of a different time this semester when I was speaking with another administrator about how student growth might or might not be impacting this person’s job. A reasonable question, I thought, since this year’s first-year class was about 125 students larger than the previous year’s class. 

“You’re chasing the wrong story,” the administrator snapped at me. 

Besides the fact that this only further validated I was chasing the right story, I asked the individual if they had taken the time to go and listen to staff members in counseling services, to students in the Graduate Student Senate and to faculty members in the sociology department. They, contrary to this administrator’s opinion, might have a vastly different reaction when they are asked how student growth is impacting them and their jobs. 

These issues look differently depending on where you sit. When you’re the one getting to decide where all this new tuition and fundraising money gets to go — when you can securely split up the budget pie from your conference table in Alumni Memorial — I bet you’ll have a different perspective than the staff member running a small office responsible for servicing an ever-growing student body with no knowledge of how much or when that money will trickle down to you. 

So to you, reader, I say, bear with us at The Brown and White

These are complicated times. We’re here. We see you. 

And we’re listening, even when it might seem nobody else is.

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5 Comments

  1. Correll French on

    Bravo, I recommend reading Strong Towns, speaks to this at a community and societal level. We overvalue things we can see and seem flashy when new (see: infrastructure and most city planning) and undervalue actual metrics and success (in this case student well being, success, and growth). Again, Bravo and keep up the great work B&W.

    • Amy Charles ‘89 on

      B&W hell, this is Jordan, who appears to be an actual journalist. Pay attention, Matt, you might learn something from him.

      Jordan: you’re at the wrong school, but I applaud how you’re making use of it. YES, you got it, it’s all about the real estate. That is the king prize at any university, is the building. Who’s got a building. Who’s got a new building. Who’s got a bigger building. You can learn the rest from Yes, Minister, particularly the episode called The Efficiency Drive. But basically it goes like this:

      From the faculty side:

      A big building (esp. with expensive facilities) means more faculty and more students. More faculty and more students means more power for the department, also for the department bigwigs who control the largest chunks of square footage.

      More power for the department is not only defense against administrative predation, it’s a hand on the collegiate steering wheel. That’s a form of nirvana, because the interests are narrow and parochial. Everything is for one’s own department, a mentality enforced by admin, whose job is basically to come around saying “where’s my money? You said you’d have that money last week and I ain’t seen no money.”

      Also, envy. You’re talking about the most boring drama in the world, the zero-stakes academic drama in which at the end of the day everyone still gets paid, can go on doing their work which, almost certainly, hardly anyone in the world knows or cares about despite best efforts of the university news team, and goes home to a nice house and a nice dinner. Because nobody can be fired and it’s also very hard to leave and find a job elsewhere, vendettas are a popular pastime and bubble along for literally decades. Till people retire or die. So a fine way of sticking it to a campus enemy is to move into a wonderful new facility while the enemy has a little hole somewhere with asbestos falling on his head. The delight is richer if students abandon the cramped little hole for your new palace.

      From the admin side:

      A big new building proves you’re alive. It’s wonderful in photos. It’s a recruiting tool for students and faculty alike. You can tour rich alumni through and wow them, prove to them you’re successful, and get them to open their wallets because success follows success. And naming rights go for tens of millions. If an institution sells bonds, the big new building has some extra meanings, because bond ratings for universities are based in part on the “condition of the physical plant”, which means Moody’s raters like to see shiny new buildings when they tour the campus. It’s also a whole set of levers for negotiating with faculty and keeping them in their places.

      Are you bored yet? I hope so, because university politics are infinitely boring, and they routinely defeat even very good novelists. They’re not bad if you want to study a court system, which is what universities are, right down to the fact that the royalty can be deposed, but the aristocracy is with you forever. But unless you have some particular fascination with them, I’d recommend moving on soon to stories that have more serious stakes. They’re all around you.

      If you’re not bored, you can hurry the process along with the standard academic novels, starting with Kingsley Amis’s _Lucky Jim_. The only real exceptions I know — the only works that are better than trivial — are Albee’s _Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf_ and Muriel Spark’s _The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie_. But otherwise you’re in for a super boring time, and when you look up from your notepad at the meetings, you’ll see it all around you.

      If you’re still not bored, maybe follow the billions. It really is a lot of money, and you have to wonder, especially given the makeup of the BoT, whether the idea is to turn Lehigh into the classic hedge fund with a university attached. But you’d want to talk to the vulture guy about that. Keith, or Kevin, or whatever his name is. Go in prepared, though.

      Oh, and yeah, every presentation that can be recycled will be recycled. Don’t expect too much.

      Congratulations,

      Amy

      Ps. Oh! Very important: five years is about a month in university time.You’ll be gone before older faculty inhale and exhale once. They understand that. Good luck —

  2. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    “…while Lehigh places more emphasis on recruiting students who come from demographics that are more likely to require mental health services while at school” Sounds like an interesting story to pursue while waiting for the administration to comment on other stories of interest.

    “You’re chasing the wrong story,” “the administrator snapped at me.” Did he disclose the right stories, of course he didn’t, then the burden would be on him and he probably has no other stories.

    Amy writes: “this is Jordan, who appears to be an actual journalist”. I agree but think you may be at the right place.

  3. Yes, very good and important article. Schools have to grow, modernize and remain competitive, but at the same time, they can’t take their eyes off what is most important – the students and their fundamental well-being. Seems like Lehigh has had a bit of a hard time focusing on the experience of its current students while planning for its future ones. These last several years have been marked by some egregiously bad judgement and decision-making, including LUPD failures (loaded gun?), ongoing sexually inappropriate behavior in the health center despite repeated complaints, overwhelmed faculty, woefully inadequate mental health counseling, inadequate on-campus transportation, questionable curriculum changes, (attempted) premature demolition of on-campus housing, and the list goes on. It’s ok for the fancy guys to want a fancy school – but they’ve kind of hijacked our seemingly good-hearted and well-intentioned President, a seasoned educator, even eliminating his President’s Scholarship (without respectfully notifying students by email, but rather slipping it into the fine print on the school web site). The Trustees and the wealthy alumni are on a mission, wearing narrow blinders as they proceed down the Path. We need for some of them to put down the ribbons and shovels, to cross party lines, to take a good look at the indifference and the damaging things that have gone on, and to maybe earmark their next multi-million dollar donation for an expanded Mental Wellness/Counseling Center (bearing donor’s name, of course). Because unless the tenuous supporting systems are strengthened, a bigger, wider, fancier Lehigh will encounter some very serious, possibly insurmountable, challenges. While my daughter has had an overall positive experience thanks to her friends, professors, and involvements, I have found myself asking all too often, Who’s in Charge Here?? Please, Someone?! The campus narrative is sounding disturbingly familiar.

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