Teaching us the way to progress

Failing the Future
April 24, 1998

Failing the Future should be required reading for anyone interested in higher education. Based on her experience as dean of the college of humanities at the University of Arizona between 1988 and 1993, Annette Kolodny's book also draws on the reflections of a distinguished career, and demands that we do something, as she did, about the educational problems affecting us.

Kolodny takes pride in her reputation as an activist, and writes eloquently about the problems of trying to change the academic environment and academic culture when she left her professorship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for Arizona. She recognised the job of dean was an impossible one, yet she was still determined to try. "With characteristic chutzpah, I was sure I could do better," she writes.

Over the next five years, she faced constant frustrations. The state of Arizona encountered financial problems, and there were inevitable cuts. Various constituencies rebelled at proposed changes in the curriculum and at the effort to make the campus more hospitable to women and minorities. By all measures, her tenure was a successful one, and to cite but one example, at the time she stepped down, women made up 49.9 per cent of her faculty, spanning all ranks, where the figure had been 29.9 per cent, concentrated in the lower ranks, when she arrived. Even so, she notes: "I found myself disappointing every constituency and every individual.'' She encountered occasional viciousness and the exhaustion that came from trying to serve all constituencies. Her own experience taught her "the agonising difficulty of acting ethically in ambiguous situations amid profoundly divided claims on one's times and budgetary resources."

Failing the Future is filled with suggestions about the things Kolodny did. She offers advice on how to raise standards, and how to make such standards for tenure and promotion fairer for women and minorities. She argues for the need to eliminate anti-feminist intellectual harassment, with a set of chilling stories from campuses around the US. She demands that universities create family-friendly policies to help men and women who need to care for children.

The beauty of this book is its humanity. Kolodny writes with sensitivity about her experiences and her life in making a case for change. Her effort to carry on without acknowledging the pain from debilitating attacks of rheumatoid arthritis is haunting. Her stories about petty-minded colleagues, and the hurt they can cause, will remind readers of the problematical personalities who often rend the fabric of civility we need to work in a common cause.

Kolodny's title and final chapter speak of failure, yet the book retains a hopeful tone. If we can broaden our conversation, both on campuses and in our larger communities, and if we can help improve the system of education at all levels, we can prepare the way for the next century. It is a daunting task, but Annette Kolodny's experience demonstrates that it can be done.

Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University, Ohio, United States.

Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the 21st Century

Author - Annette Kolodny
ISBN - 0 8223 2186 6
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 298

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