An Academic Challenge to "Youth Challenge"

O. Alan Weltzien

The story of how the Montana National Guard's Youth Challenge program came to our campus raises some serious questions about the viability of shared governance at Western Montana College.

Youth Challenge (YC) is a federally funded program administered through the National Guard. It identifies at-risk high school-age students, enrolls them in a paramilitary program combining a high school course of study with physical exercise, strict discipline, and close supervision. The program aims to turn lives around and thereby create productive individuals. It's also a program that almost always takes place on military bases. I have no quarrel with its intentions or idealism. After all, it does sometimes succeed where dysfunctional home settings and/or parents have failed. I do have questions with its setting on a college campus.

The story features Western's former Chancellor, the Montana Legislature, the Dillon Tribune publisher and editor. It shows what happens when the faculty has little or no voice in decisions affecting the academic life on campus, when faculty dissent is ridiculed, and some faculty members are labeled with marginalizing terms such as "minority." The current academic year has seen two disparate student cultures co-existing uneasily while those faculty and students who have raised questions about the YC program's place on our campus have been mocked, particularly by journalist John Barrows. I retell the story, among other reasons, to stress the centrality of faculty to an institution's academic mission and the necessity of civil dissent on a college campus. In this retelling, I speak for myself and do not pretend to represent majority opinion. Ordinarily colleges such as ours are expected to model shared governance, which includes respect for the value and place of dissent. Such has not been the case at Western with regard to this program. As is usually the case, intolerance of dissent on-campus foments community intolerance, and one historic value of the academy atrophies.

From the beginning, the propriety of locating such a program on a college campus was not adequately addressed. Instead, it has been assumed that YC would merge effortlessly with the existing programs and culture of Western. But this has not been the case. The presence of YC has not complemented our academic culture! The jury is out as to its effect upon our enrollment--which takes us back to the genesis of the problem.

Spring and Summer 1999

Let's turn back to the final weeks of the 1999 Legislative Session. WMC-UM, in the preceding three years, had not experienced the kind of enrollment growth administrators had predicted. The same scenario repeats itself at some other MUS units, all of us suffering under the enrollment management formula, originating several years ago, that drives our funding. Also like other campuses, we've had some problems with admissions and retention, problems that I fear have not gone away. Former Chancellor Sheila Stearns was, by common repute, an excellent MUS lobbyist. Her husband, Hal Stearns, Jr., serves as a brigadier general in the Montana National Guard, though allegedly there was no connection between that fact and Western securing the YC program. Western had an "underutilized facility," i.e., a residence hall more empty than full, and budgeting, as always, was tight. It's true that a couple of on-campus forums were held last spring to discuss the program, but many faculty knew it was already a done deal. I think these forums can be characterized as "pro forma," with token input. This proposal was fast-tracked through the legislature, according to one gubernatorial candidate I talked with months later. As far as I have been able to determine, there was little to no discussion of the program's impacts, apart from financial, upon WMC-UM. Western became the first campus in the country to house the YC program. Over the next several months, administration disseminated some information about YC's logistics but faculty were not asked to take any big role in planning. In fact they were not asked much of anything about "Youth Challenge" coming to campus. If its presence constitutes a governance issue, as I and others believe, faculty did not--do not--share governance about it. Meanwhile, in mid-summer the Stearnses departed for Wayne, Nebraska, and Stephen Hulbert took over the helm as Chancellor.

YC eased the 1999-2000 budgetary crunch and, counting these youth, residence halls are fuller than they've been in some time; too, there was now enough money to fix the cafeteria ice cream machine, as was publicized. YC kids support a lot of home football and basketball games and cheer as enthusiastically as anyone. The Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, Karl Ulrich, has consistently argued that YC kids become an excellent recruiting pool for WMC-UM. Acting upon that belief, late in the fall term he hosted an informal reception for these students and faculty. I see nothing wrong with that, as some of these formerly at-risk students are making a transition and might become solid if not distinguished college students. This trial run of YC has seen a dropout rate of over 50%, which doesn't speak well to its success, since potential participants are screened before admission, and the national average retention rate for YC programs is 91%, according to their own published literature. Aside from that, though, it's possible that a few YC graduates will become decent WMC-UM students. (Eventually 43 graduated out of the original group of approximately 120, and at least 3 sought admission to WMC-UM) But what kinds of students are we trying to recruit and retain? WMC-UM has traditionally offered admission to a fairly high number of at-risk students, and predictably, some make it while many, for other reasons, have disappeared, most after one or two semesters. Many of us understood from the former Chancellor that the institution was vastly increasing its effort to recruit high caliber students including high school valedictorians. Isn't the addition of YC diluting Western's ability to market itself to academically stronger students?

To ignore the fact that WMC-UM currently features two student populations separated by age, background, clothing (i.e., uniforms in one case), and present purpose--whether at a home game, evidenced by one's segregation in the stands, or elsewhere--is to ignore reality. The main population, the WMC-UM student body, theoretically if not actually understands the rhythms and vocabularies of college life. They learn, sometimes marginally and occasionally, about the substantive aspects of academic life; they learn more about, for example, professorial expectations. The professor-student relationship forms, after all, the centerpiece of the academy; everyone and everything else stands secondary to that. Western's second, newer, experimental student population by definition does not understand most facets of academic life, for how could they possibly? Why, then, ignore salient differences and assume an easy mixture? YC program administrators argue that a college atmosphere only helps the enrollees and boosts their chances of success, and they are right. But what do college students gain and what does a college gain? It's hard to recognize mutual benefits.

Most WMC-UM faculty, staff, and students, I gather, support or are noncommittal about YC on Western's campus. Some students have been verbally hassled by YC kids, however, and students and faculty both have witnessed behavior that has no place on a college campus. The Vice Chancellor, at the beginning of the Fall 1999 term, promised faculty that YC would in no way interfere with the WMC-UM academic mission. So who determines interference? I've seen plenty of YC incidents since the summer that violate, in my judgment, the WMC-UM academic mission. I began the fall term trying hard to maintain an open mind about this program, but have concluded it's out of place. One set of unasked and unanswered questions concerns the fit of a five-month remedial high school program superimposed upon an existing college semester and academic calendar; another set concerns its fit within a typical college setting.

Fall 1999

The Fall term's opening two weeks proved a rough shakedown, as several YC enrollees stole cars, took off, and kept Dillon police busy. I understand that YC leadership plan to move this "orientation period" to Fort Harrison outside Helena. It would seem that YC leadership entertains or understands few of the questions of fit and appropriateness I have raised, but lacking backgrounds as academics, why would they?

What constitutes interference with a college's mission? Is it when YC "cadre leaders" (i.e., drill sergeants) stand outside my office talking loudly on walkie-talkies, thereby interfering with my work, conferences with students, etc.? Or when YC kids visually distract my class in progress? When they march along campus sidewalks dressed in uniform styles and colors? When they curse female students who won't give them cigarettes? When YC "sergeants" chastize and discipline enrollees, a la boot camp, in front of college students or other personnel? WMC-UM's "Curious Minds," a lab school (mostly pre-school) for WMC-UM's Early Childhood Education program, is housed not far from the residence hall populated by YC enrollees. What about those times when three- or five-year olds have witnessed the shouting or discipline through forced calisthenics? I and others are troubled by these behaviors. Certainly some WMC-UM personnel hope that if our admissions and retention work improves sufficiently, we will discontinue the YC relationship after this initial, two-year contract. College students, not others, should occupy college dorms.

I respect the military, as my father was a WWII vet and my younger brother is now a Commander in the USNR. I have some appreciation of his Naval career, beginning with those tough months in OCS at Newport, Rhode Island. I chose the academic life, though, and don't see how YC blends with that. Dillon Tribune publisher John Barrows, however, a primary YC cheerleader, harbors no questions about the blend. Barrows plays a big role in the YC story due to his newspaper's generous coverage and naïve, unqualified boosterism. On October 14, 1999 the student-run Coalition for Social Awareness, which hosts forums on campus every month or two and which always seeks a balance of viewpoints among panelists, hosted a forum concerning YC. That forum led to a front-page Dillon Tribune news story by reporter Kim Albea, "Challenge draws kudos, concerns" (119.42, 20 October 1999). It begins, "It's popular to celebrate diversity and a point, but certainly not for anything to do with the military, even a program to help kids." It's hard to see this "news story" as other than editorializing, quickly painting those present at that forum who raised objections to YC as a "vocal minority," not only anti-military but opposed to anything that might "help kids." A move as deft as it is unfair--and wrong. I understand from multiple sources that a variety of views were aired.

The Dillon Tribune represents the only journalistic act of size in Dillon and Beaverhead County, so, as is the case across rural Montana and America, it wields considerable influence over its readership. This same October 20 issue saw it rendering YC sacred, a mom-and-apple-pie verity beyond question or challenge. (For example, the inside front page, "Vignettes: About People and Places" feature, devoted to YC, was headlined, "There were hugs all around.") The newspaper coverage appropriately lauded the program but downplayed or ignored all questions about fit raised on campus or earlier in this article. Publisher Barrows, in a long editorial titled "When do you stay? When do you leave?" (A4), insisted "the program is where it should ideal learning location for young people," and that "Challenge and Western are a good fit." He also managed to get quite personal regarding a distinguished colleague, my friend and associate on The Montana Professor Editorial Board, geologist Rob Thomas: "At Thursday's meeting one professor made a pointed reference that if Challenge didn't leave, he would. Although the temptation to make a comment about rear ends and swinging doors is great, it serves no purpose. How that professor reacts to the program is his choice. He can leave. He can continue to do his job and ignore the occasional intrusion cadence-shouting kids in sweats and boots can bring." Thomas apologized for his public comment in a letter to the editor the following week (27 October 1999). Barrows has never apologized to anyone for a series of personal attacks. Obviously, one who condones "the occasional intrusion cadence-shouting kids in sweats and boots can bring" does not understand academic life in general and the WMC-UM academic mission in particular.

I wrote a letter to the editor which, like Thomas's, appeared in the 27 October 1999 issue (119.43). In it I reminded the readership of a college faculty's central role in defining academic life and stated that questions about YC at WMC-UM were necessary and appropriate, particularly given academe's traditional tolerance of dissent. The headlines, though, larger than the previous weeks's, told a different story: "Challenge has place on Western campus." A letter to the editor was treated as news by the editor with, of course, no opportunity for equal coverage. Below this article Barrows printed another titled "And the general said 'Wow'," detailing a $124,000 anonymous donation earmarked for YC scholarships. Comments from Chancellor Hulbert and Vice Chancellor Karl Ulrich included in these articles ignored the tradition of shared governance and flatly denied faculty a role. It seems to me such administrative comments represent backfilling and window dressing. WMC-UM has got YC so let's make the best of it. Over the years, Barrows has supported WMC-UM well, though now he would have us think YC perfectly fits our mission. Reading the paper in October and November, it's hard to escape the feeling that a publisher claims to know our business better than we ourselves. Or is he just mimicking the voices of downtown, those community powers or pillars who, for a variety of reasons, claim substantial ownership of WMC-UM?

A long letter to the editor by colleague Jack Kirkley, which appeared in the 3 November 1999 Tribune (119.44), criticized the administrative window dressing as a cover for the financial reasons why WMC-UM administrators wanted this program, which I alluded to earlier. He developed the theme, "no one should be fooled about the real reason why Western is currently able to house this program," which goes back to admissions and retention challenges. Kirkley concluded by speculating about YC as a "liability," rather than "asset": "perhaps the sight of cadence-chanting platoons of army-booted cadets let by swat team-looking drill sergeants (the ones in the offensive 'men in black' uniforms) may cause some potential students and faculty candidates to decide not to come to Western and motivate other students and staff to leave in disgust." He described one possible scenario, not at all a foregone conclusion. Kirkley's interpretation of YC's genesis at WMC-UM, which I believe correct, led to further letters and more drum beating from the publisher and others in subsequent issues. (One colleague even accused Kirkley of stepping beyond the "shield of academic freedom" because he had included his title, Professor of Biology, in the closing of his letter to the editor: a sentiment echoed by Vice Chancellor Ulrich who apparently reprimanded several faculty letter writers. This subterfuge of crying foul over a supposedly unprofessional instance of academic freedom seems some wrong attempt to muzzle the exercise of free speech).

Moral of the Story?

In a rural Montana college town, college and town exist in a potent marriage, yet own different personalities and definitions and rates of change. One could argue that higher education changes faster than rural Montana. A town-gown marriage inevitably includes occasions or even seasons of divergence or strife. For many reasons of tradition and loyality, town often claims ownership of gown though not always understanding it, particularly when evidences of campus change make them nervous. Reportage of campus activity off-campus can easily distort campus imagery. Local newspapers depend upon colleges for news, but sometimes their reportage makes college personnel, presumably prominent among a community's intellectual leadership, look stupidly self-divisive. It's a chronic risk that gown runs in town. After all, those who purport to be intellectuals make such easy targets; egghead portraiture confirms invidious, anti-intellectual stereotypes as old as the hills. During the autumn semester both the program's intrusiveness and the community's harsh treatment of the occasional dissenters startled me.

Far be it from me not to grant boot camp pedagogy its own validity, its ancient tradition of inculcating self-discipline via external discipline. After all, this tradition, usually in kinder, gentler manifestations, defines much parenting. Too, no one can argue with the fact that so many undergraduates struggle to discover sufficient self-discipline and become as strong college students as they might. Many never figure this out, as we all know. However, traditions of pedagogy characteristic of higher education seem to me much broader and more supple than that characterizing all the paramilitary programs in the world. I see little blend between a YC program and the primary business between professors and students. In fact, academe often stands opposed to those signatures of physical discipline and platoon mentality characteristic of YC's. Our business concerns the intellect, traditionally, and professors by definition embody it.

Shared governance? I wish this cautionary tale described something more than an administrative end run around faculty. Presumably both administration and faculty define a campus's imagery, but in this case, faculty lost ground. Does a college experience net gain or net loss under these peculiar circumstances? I wish YC well, but I wish WMC-UM much more, as I should. I wish it a much stronger academic climate, as do my colleagues and all colleagues on their respective MUS units. I wish for more students to rise to the quality of our faculty which, across the 1990's, has become the strongest it's ever been. I wish for our faculty to be accorded the intellectual leadership that is historically theirs, and I wish for administration to be proactively supportive, not obstructive, of shared governance. We all know the anti-intellectual forces off-campus ranged against us; we also know that some of these forces exist on-campus, making our job--our raison d'être--tougher. A program accepted for its short-term economic boon has further adulterated WMC-UM's academic image. I only hope such programs will find more appropriate homes and that MUS faculty genuinely participate in shared governance, particularly as it applies to academic programming.

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