Crises in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America

Christopher J. Lucas
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996
288 pp., $17.95 pb

Arthur H. DeRosier, Jr., President
Rocky Mountain College

When an academic approaches a volume such as Crises in the Academy, it is easy to be defensive. It appears that Americans from all walks of life are maintaining that higher education in the '90s is a cataclysmic failure. Of course, while we grouse about the unfairness of the contention, we realize that Americans have always leveled criticism at the academy for being too exclusive, too open, too core oriented, too barren of a decent core, and just about every other contradiction they can call to mind. The truth is that folks are critical because they care; when they stop viewing us with a jaundiced eye, we had better start worrying.

There is, indeed, reason to be concerned about higher education. We have problems that deserve to be faced and solved. What makes the contemporary scene different from the past is the degree of urgency evident among just about all constituencies; and we in the academy, however, have always been more comfortable walking than running.

What are our problems? Lucas identifies six: first, higher education is so diverse and varied that sweeping generalizations are meaningless; second, universities are suffering a "crisis of purpose"; third, mass postsecondary education has led to a real decline in both "academic expectations and scholarly attainment"; fourth, the academy no longer puts teaching first; fifth, there is a need for a sensible common undergraduate curriculum; and, sixth, we need to respond to the public's demand for accountability.

The enumeration of these problems and the discussion of pro-and-con arguments about tenure, entrance standards, higher education's mission, affirmative action, a core, and everything else from facilities to major program expectations, are not new and have been visited in enough volumes, articles, and scholarly presentations to fill many shelves. What is unique and fresh about Lucas' presentation is that he writes in a way that is interesting, challenging, and free of invective. He is worth reading because his words fall together well and his narrative is free of the whining voice of academics who take umbrage at questions posed to us by politicians, accrediting organizations, the media, and all others who breathe.

For example, Professor Lucas offers a lucid discussion about tenure. He discusses its history in America, the early need to insure academic freedom, and its successes and failures through the decades. Though he sees the purpose of tenure shifting from academic freedom to job security, and though he suggests the elimination of tenure posthaste, he does not see the shift from protecting academic freedom to job security as a bad thing. However, he points to an unavoidable trade off between job security and the "psychological insecurity imposed on those still seeking it" that is brutal and, in all too many cases, devastating. Tenure has created two distinct classes of regular, full-time faculty, and in his eyes that alone is reason enough to end it now. You may agree or disagree with his position, but what is important is that his narrative is straight-forward and acknowledges why some will agree with his position while others will consider it preposterous. He offers options again and again as he wends his way through thorny problems aplenty.

Particularly fine is Lucas' chapter on the history of higher education in America. Of course, one cannot cover all bases in 50 pages, but he does define clearly the aims and objectives of pre-civil War higher education. He outlines the birth of the university system as we know it today, the encroachment of professional programs, the growing obsession with research above all else, the evolution of community colleges, and the woes of four-year colleges--especially those in the private sector. It is a chapter that probably should be required reading for all within the academy, from Board members to students, for it emphasizes the ebb and flow of ideas which all had defenders and detractors and still do. A good debate on open admissions, electives, great books, distance learning, and general education can consume as much personal energy as a debate on presidential morals, Palestinian aspirations, or the state of the economy. Lucas whets one's appetite for a discussion of specifics by offering a fine general overview of higher education's history. He takes the reader to a level of understanding and concern that then allows the rest of the volume to make sense. However, the chapter is good enough in itself to stand alone, and that is no mean accomplishment.

When all is said and done and he has shared with us both the problems and the urgency for finding solutions, one problem stands front and center in Lucas' mind and must be addressed immediately. The purpose of the volume is to remind us that our charge is to teach undergraduate students, and we get an "F" grade in doing so. He maintains that universities are splendid processors of information, but he stoutly maintains that "what they do least well is educate undergraduates." It is the one scathing indictment that Lucas offers, and he makes his case quite well.

As universities evolved during the latter part of the nineteenth century, teaching undergraduates became less and less significant in mission statements and reality. Graduate schools, myriad professional programs, and research expanded to consume the enterprise. New faculty soon learned that offering scholarly papers, publishing in refereed journals, and publishing volumes were more important than teaching undergraduate students. Graduate students gradually took over undergraduate teaching chores, especially teaching those courses that used to be part and parcel of core requirements for all students and sacred to the institution's undergraduate aspirations.

Lucas suggests that colleges and universities are receiving undereducated high school graduates with impressive technology skills but shocking deficiencies in mathematics and communication skills. What is worse still, he maintains, is that we are graduating students with those same deficiencies. Excellent employment opportunities go begging because many graduates do not have the basic skills needed to fill those jobs. Meanwhile, the public looks at the cost of education from kindergarten through undergraduate schools and the quality of the job done, and they are not pleased with what they see. Lucas suggests that this is not only a major higher education problem, but one of our major national problems as well.

There are, though, hopeful signs. Lucas offers evidence that business leaders are demanding more liberally educated generalists who can read and write, have facility with a foreign language, exercise critical judgment, are flexible, and have a "highly developed sense of personal responsibility and ethics." At the same time, business executives and others are questioning a core that does not emphasize these skills while chiding colleges for a narrow discipline-oriented undergraduate menu rather than a core-driven general one. Whether or not this call for improved education on the undergraduate level continues only time will tell, but there is no doubt that Lucas will do his part not only to sustain it but to intensify it.

There is much Lucas could have included in this short, thoughtful volume, such as an analysis of the relationship between cost and access, the interrelatedness of knowledge, or curriculum matters. He tells us how curriculum changes evolved, but rather than share what he feels should be included in the curriculum, he simply suggests that curricular issues have always and forever been contentious and leaves it at that. Curriculum content is too important an issue to blow off with such a dismissive comment. It may be contentious, and it may be as hard to grasp as cotton candy, but that is what makes it so intriguing and necessary to address.

The volume contains a fine selected bibliography of secondary sources on the evolution of higher education in America, along with adequate footnotes and a modest index. All in all, it is a volume that deserves reading and contemplation as we rethink, on a continuing basis, the higher education system we offer to students living in an age where change is the norm, and challenge is encouraged and embraced.

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