The best answer is still RTFM

July 11, 2013

Countless college and university presidents and deans have written memoirs over the years in hopes of providing both brilliant insights and practical guidelines. Most such works reprint or modestly revise dry and repetitive speeches that are “dead on arrival”. Henry Rosovsky’s The University: An Owner’s Manual (1990) remains a notable exception. This argument for fundamental faculty governance and for a comprehensive undergraduate core curriculum has become a classic, not least because Rosovsky has street cred. He was Harvard’s most esteemed dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (1973-84) and later (1985-97) a member of the institution’s top governing body, the Harvard Corporation. He even served as acting president in 1984 and 1987 – having declined Yale’s offer to become its president.

Rosovsky notes that his beloved Harvard, which he concedes is hardly representative of US higher education, has faced challenges not unlike those faced by other institutions, whether private or public. His own sense of triumph – especially at the creation of the widely praised core curriculum – is never smug.

Ironically, conservatives such as Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, E. D. Hirsch and William Bennett condemned his core as too weak to resist the onslaught of leftists’ attacks on the traditional Western culture curriculum. One wonders how Rosovsky would respond to the new book co-authored by Bennett, Is College Worth It? Bennett’s (familiar) critique is that too many students attend college, often accumulate large debts, major in humanities fields rarely leading to decent jobs, and bypass the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects that likely will pay off. Not much of a defence of Western culture!

Rosovsky would surely maintain his faith in the faculty. Respectful as he was towards the Harvard Corporation and comparable governing bodies elsewhere, the academics, he insisted, are every college and university’s principal owners. Among Rosovsky’s most quoted lines (but not cited in the book) was his reply to students seeking a larger role in governance: “You students are here for four years, but I’ll be here for the rest of my life. Harvard will be here for ever.”

These sentiments about the importance of faculty may still ring true for many. But they ring hollow for the huge numbers who never gained full-time positions or who lost them because of relentless budgetary cutbacks.

Today’s governance bodies, top administrators, alumni and, for public institutions, governors and legislators demand ever more business-oriented micromanagement. Academics are expected to stitch together low-paying careers composed of part-time posts and courses, often at different institutions. Even full-time faculty increasingly teach online courses. The dream of these various non-faculty “stakeholders” – a term happily not found in Rosovsky’s book – is to create Moocs: massive open online courses taught by charismatic star professors reaching tens of thousands of students worldwide and thereby eliminating countless more faculty.

Besides the core curriculum and the respect for faculty governance, the other basic issues that Rosovsky addresses are hardly outdated: the importance of selecting presidents and deans with solid academic backgrounds; the need for full-time professors to teach and to do research if they are truly to succeed at either; the false belief that only the most prestigious institutions are the best fit for all students; the courage to ask wealthy potential donors for more rather than less; and the insufficient attention paid to issues of professional academic conduct.

Unlike dense automobile and appliance guides, this “owner’s manual” should, despite its age and its roots in an enclosed Harvard universe, remain required reading for all students of US higher education.

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