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Commentary

Improving Academic Climate: No Free Lunches
By: Richard D. Erlich, professor of English

For what my opinion is worth, I agree with President James Garland on the necessity for improving the intellectual climate at Miami University, but I would stress how difficult such improvement will be.

I’ll talk about what I know most about: the Oxford campus, "MUO." MUO makes sense; it works. If it doesn’t work on a high level at matters academic and intellectual, then we need to look at its other functions, attractions, and strengths.

For academic studies of the various functions of U.S. colleges, see Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture and Moffatt’s citations. Priority of effective publication on the matter, however, probably goes to MAD Magazine’s 100th issue, January 1966. In a parody of Ozzie & Harriet, "Rickety" Nelson comes home from school and tells his father "that Accelerated Enrichment Program keeps me busy. I’ve got three more Proms, six more Football Rallies and one additional Frat Party each week. They really pour it on." A visiting neighbor asks, "Just what classes does Rickety go to?," and Harriet responds, "He doesn’t go to classes. He just goes to college."

This distinction was brought home to me when my niece commented that MUO had nearly a perfect reputation to recruit graduates at her school in Chicago’s northern suburbs: parents were convinced Miami was a high-status, conservative place to send their children for a good education; the kids knew from their own sources that they could get a respectable diploma and transcript from MUO and still have a very good time. In MAD’s terms, classes at MUO were pretty easy and college here was just fine.

MUO has a high retention rate, loyal alumni, and, mostly, happy parents of our students and (therefore) a high percentage of members of the Ohio General Assembly neutral about us or pleased with us. We also have a youth ghetto with near-zero diversity in terms of age and minimal diversity in terms of anything else, with a high number of students working for the old "gentleman’s ‘C’" average and receiving the newer "genteel ‘B.’"

Want to improve the intellectual climate at MUO? We could assert "College may be for kids, but a university is for grownups" and act on that assertion. We can debate the details, but I’d say that attitude implies

• encouraging young faculty to settle in square-mile Oxford and immediate vicinity: rolling back, as possible, the youth-ghettoization of the town (which would require helping provide better-quality schools in Oxford);

• recruiting older students, graduate students, and intellectual students, primarily through generous need-based and merit scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships;

• eliminating the dragging of parents to orientation (if their offspring aren’t ready to handle orientation on their own, those kids aren’t ready for MU);

• with rare exceptions, accepting payment of tuition and fees from MU students only and not accepting checks from parents (when parents assert, "I’m paying for this!," it’s handy to be able to answer quietly, "That’s more than we know"; if some students are too immature to handle money, their nonpayment of fees is helpful in removing them from Miami U.);

• requiring a high GPA not to pledge a fraternity or sorority but to initiate (into) one, with initiations following a fairly long pledgeship the preceding semester (so the small-g MUO greeks will be rewarded for helping pledges in their studies and punished—through decreased numbers—in hindering school work);

• bribing, if necessary, juniors and seniors to live in the residence halls with frosh (throw a bunch of 18-year-olds together, and you get high school culture);

• encouraging "a culture of writing" by financially rewarding departments that (1) encourage writing and (2) discourage all machine-graded testing except the most cunningly devised problem-solving exams;

• getting resources to be applied toward such initiatives by taking a more realistic approach to big-time athletics at MUO—we should come down at least half a division in football—and a less compulsive approach to keeping up campus appearance and keeping up with all the other schools and businesses in building, re-building, and the more faculty-labor-intensive of the "New! Improved!" technical innovations.

That last item returns us to my main point. We will lose some students if we lose high-power football, if the campus doesn’t look significantly prettier than competing campuses, if we can’t advertise how our relatively cheap degrees can help get the best jobs with the most with-it, cash-rich companies. I’m saying we should let those students go and get more serious students.

Other implications of a more bracing academic climate will include some less happy students, less enthusiastic alums, and some downright pissed-off parents and politicians. We should accept those costs.

We should also recruit or cultivate some Nobel, Pulitzer, and/or MacArthur winners among the faculty, staff, and administration—but that’s for someone else to cover.

Date Published: 10/19/2000
Volume: 20   Number: 12

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