Higher ED


Regional/ Kansas City:


© Jack Cashill

April 2008
Courtesy of ingramsonline.com

A stormy St. Patrick’s morn, a skittish day on Wall Street, and a no-nonsense Kauffman Foundation symposium on innovation conspired to make me a wee bit jittery about America’s place in the world and Missouri’s place in America.

But only for a moment. As I walked to my car, I set my mind to charting Missouri’s economic future and, mirabile dictu, I had the whole megillah worked out before I left the Kauffman parking lot.

I call my solution, simply enough, Higher ED (ee-dee), a natural synthesis between higher education and economic development. Although I apply it here to Missouri, it could work just as well in Kansas (for, of course, a small franchise fee).

The most consistent refrain voiced by the Kauffman symposium speakers that rainy day was America’s failure to produce enough innovators, especially scientists and engineers, the people who fuel economic growth.

Fortuitously, just a month before the symposium, Missouri University had selected an engineer to head its four-campus system, former Sprint CEO and Rolla grad Gary Forsee. This was a good start.

The next step is for Forsee and his team to revisit the terms of the Morrill Land Grant Act that spawned the university. To refresh your memory, the goal of the act was altogether practical, to wit: “without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

Some of this practical intent finds its way into MU’s current mission statement, but only vaguely and indirectly. Now, the university’s goal is “to discover, disseminate, apply, and preserve knowledge.” But what kind of knowledge and to what end is left largely to the imagination.

As a symptom of this fuzziness, MU’s Columbia campus now offers more than 280 majors and boasts, all too tellingly,“ There's a major for everyone.” Much of the coursework in the loopier of these majors—Theory and Practice of the Theatre of the Oppressed, anyone?—would have old Justin Smith Morrill doing half-gainers in his grave.

In this regard, the University of Missouri is scarcely unique. Indeed, it would be hard to find a liberal arts department in any state university anywhere that is not at least half a bubble off plumb ideologically. The failure of educators to grasp taxpayer resistance to this subsidized subversion continues to amaze me.

Beyond the lopsided politics, many academic departments are just flat out pointless. A few years back, for instance, the University of Illinois offered me a position in their marketing department, allegedly the best in the nation.

I would have had to teach only one course a semester, and this in a thousand-student classroom. As I learned, no one really cared whether the students learned anything. There wasn’t much to learn in the first place. Hell, after ten years in the business, I could teach all I knew in an afternoon.

What mattered apparently was “research.” The problem here, as I knew from experience, is that no real life ad person would ever read any of it. So remind me, why were the state’s taxpayers ponying up for this?

Happily, MU is among the saner and more purposeful of state universities. Much of what the university does hews to the general intent of the Land Grant Act and produces real value for the state. These programs Forsee and his people need to identify and encourage.

They do so by redrafting the mission statement simply and straightforwardly,“The mission of the university is to promote the economic development of the state of Missouri in an ethical way.”

Before you pull the charge of “Philistinism” from your philological quiver, remember that there are some 26 private, brick and mortar, 4-year, liberal arts colleges and universities in the state of Missouri.

Let them pursue their noble and distinctive goals without subsidized competition. The state has no vested interest in the teaching of Existentialism or Early Medieval French, let alone Queer Studies or Swahili 101.

The implementation of Higher ED would not lead to willy-nilly cuts in the curriculum. As envisioned, it would simply restrict financial aid to students in the two-thirds of those 280 majors that contribute most to the state’s economic best interest. Administrators could then see how much real demand there is for the courses in the least productive third and trim accordingly.

The money saved would be redirected towards those select ten or twenty departments that best foster innovation and technological advance. Once identified, the university would give every student admitted to these key departments’ full scholarships and public recognition, a dramatic public relations shot that would be heard around the world.

The one catch, useful for Missouri, is that students from out-of-state or out-of-country would be obliged to work for two years in state after they finish their education. If we nail them down for a couple of years, there is a good chance we can keep them. This new orientation would redefine the university and the state in international circles.

What is more, these select departments would be fabulously diverse unless, as publisher Steve Rose told me recently on his eponymous KCPT-TV show, Asians don’t count as minorities.

For other minority groups, and for all American high school students, females in particular, Higher ED would show them at an early age that the path to a free college education and success thereafter leads through math and science. The thought of saving 50 to 100 k might inspire their parents to ride the kiddies — and their school boards — a little harder.

Yes, Virginia, your perky little suburban school district is, of course, “excellent” — that is, if you compare it to Kansas City’s, and not to South Korea’s.

The university has a precedent for special treatment of select students. Just visit the athletic department of any state university and sniff around. UMKC, for instance, offers 16 Division I sports, all of them heavily subsidized, none of them of any real interest to anyone but the players and their families.

From an economic development perspective, a good case could be made for men’s basketball and football at MU.

The rest just consume scholarships and resources needlessly. I doubt if the NCAA’s most clever apologist can explain why we actively recruit women to catch softballs but not to cure cancer.

Those students who still want the taxpayers to subsidize their passion for mediocre volleyball or bad poetry, bless their hearts. There are still nine other state universities and twenty some community colleges in Missouri where they can take their chances.

To be sure, Gary Forsee will face massive resistance if he attempts this. In fact, he can expect massive resistance if he attempts any change of consequence. But then again, Kauffman CEO Carl Schramm faced massive resistance when he attempted to reorient the Foundation back to its founder’s original mission.

Today, I am sure, Mr. K is smiling somewhere up above at the changes Schramm has wrought. Maybe one day Mr. Morrill will smile at Mr. Forsee’s.  

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