Tuesday, May 14, 2013

University Toy Town Syndrome

Of all the things I've read about higher ed in the last week, nothing has stuck with me more than an article on Purdue University's new campus rec center, which makes it sound fit for the Roman emperors to get a message in.  The author, a grad student, notes the incongruity of humanities buildings on campus crumbling while shiny new palaces of leisure with no educational purpose rise up like cathedrals on campus.

I witnessed the magical building of expensive new edifices during times of want and austerity for faculty first hand at my last job.  The moment of real truth came during the last all-university meeting I attended, when our Oz-like president came down from the mountaintop and made his pronouncements.  This particular meeting left me bewildered, since the president began by touting all of the building done on campus, including an addition onto his own house (ostensibly so it could hold larger fund raisers.)  One would think that our university was flush with cash, considering that all of the new dormitories and such had been constructed in the wake of a state of the art student center and a massive rec center complete with rock climbing wall and lazy river.  However, right after he got done telling us about a new beacon on the tallest dorm that would shine a stream of the school's colors after each athletic victory, he immediately launched into a discussion of state cutbacks, and implied that "low performing" programs and departments might be cut, and that we could not expect raises any time soon.

In effect, what he just told us was "I care more about funding buildings and athletics than I do about academics and education." He was apparently infected by an administrative disease that others have discussed before, but I think I am the first to give it this name: Toy Town Syndrome. Many administrators approach their universities like their own little dioramas to be expanded and tinkered with. New sports facilities, student recreation centers, and modernized dorms have become the preferred additions to the toy town.  In these administrators' minds,  the students will want to come to the gleaming toy town, not to learn from the betweeded underlings teaching them.  They can just subsist on a steady diet of gruel, and be threatened with replacement by the reserve army of unemployed if they make any complaints.

I honestly think that many upper level administrators judge their success on the number of buildings they finance in their careers. The Toy Town Syndrome certainly explains the universities in Louisiana that have cut philosophy programs, yet still maintain football teams. At least all of those rock-climbing walls and sky box-filled football stadiums, like the Roman baths and coliseums, will make for exquisite ruins when public higher education collapses in a couple of decades.


bmi said...

Education is messy and it's hard. Not everyone gets an A and we end up with lots of questions that don't yet have answers. Building new buildings only costs money and there is a clear winner in an athletic contest. For administrators (and some members of the public) who have forgotten what it is like to be in a classroom, building a toy town with sports teams is so much easier and emotionally satisfying than making education better--and thus messier.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

You said it better than me, bmi. A new building is a sure thing, anything else, no matter how noble the purpose, is a gamble. The sports and buildings also help draw the customers, oops, I meant "students."

pr said...

I've seen this criticism popping up recently and I think you guys are not seeing another side of this.

Purdue and many other Big-10 schools are among the highest caliber research schools in the world with respect to Engineering and Science (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/30/top-engineering-schools-academic-ranking-of-world-universities_n_2569395.html#slide=2037122).

These are not liberal art colleges or regional comprehensive universities that need to increase enrollment to merely stay afloat. These universities want to remain powerhouses of engineering research and are facing increasing competition for distinguished senior faculty as well as hot-prospects with fresh PhDs. This competition is not only coming from high-powered coastal universities but from big companies with deep pockets (and their own rock climbing walls).

In the last few years I've seen many faculty (junior and senior) leave tenured and tenure-track university positions to work at Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, etc.. This specifically includes faculty that have left Purdue. I have also seen senior researchers at these big companies move to high-powered universities. The competition is fierce and midwestern universities are at a huge disadvantage.

I don't know if Purdue's new co-rec was built to attract students or researchers (probably a bit of both) but I do know that gone are the days when faculty in high-demand fields are begging for a job in Indiana in a cinder-block office where they eat crappy cafeteria food everyday and can barely venture outside to exercise in the winter.