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Colleges and Their Priorities

Jeffrey Selingo, who has written a book about American colleges and universities, says: “One of the fears, and one of my fears, is that we might become a country where the next generation is less educated than the generation that preceded it.”

A major part of the problem is that colleges and universities have invested more strenuously in amenities than in education, with the assumption that students absorbed in the delights of their dining halls and climbing walls won’t notice that their teachers are largely underpaid adjuncts who have to jump from course to course and college to college to try to get something close to minimum-wage levels of pay. (Consider this: “About 70 percent of the instructional faculty at all colleges is off the tenure track, whether as part-timers or full-timers, a proportion that has crept higher over the past decade.”)

You want to think some about amenities? Then read Freddie DeBoer’s account of his visit to the France A Cordova Recreational Sports Center at Purdue University.

The Cordova Recreational Sports Center is five stories and about 338,000 square feet— not a misprint— of Gleaming Fitness Palace. I don’t say “gleaming” loosely. Like most new construction at American universities, the GFP is a beautiful melding of glass and steel, designed, no doubt, by some pricey architect.

It really is lovely to look at. It looks like… money.


But why is the investing in such amenities problematic? Because colleges borrowed heavily to create them at a very bad time to go deeply into debt, and in the naïve belief that their amenities would be uniquely wonderful. But if everyone is doing it, or has already done it, then the amenities cancel each other out, leaving schools with the old problem: how do we distinguish what we have to offer from what everyone else has to offer?

How about this? Maybe someone could have the imagination to say: By the quality of our teaching. I am waiting for some bold college president to come forth and say, “You won’t find especially nice dorms at our college. They’re clean and neat, but there’s nothing fancy about them. We don’t have a climbing wall. Our food services offer simple food, made as often as possible with fresh ingredients, but we couldn’t call it gourmet eating. There are no 55-inch flat-screen TVs in the lounges of our dorms. We don’t have these amenities because we decided instead to invest in full-time, permanent faculty who are genuinely dedicated to teaching and advising you well and preparing you for life after college. So if you want the state-of-the-art rec center, that’s cool, but just remember that the price you’ll pay for that is to have most of your classes taught by graduate students and contingent faculty, the first of whom won’t have the experience and the second of whom won’t have the time to be the kind of teachers you need (even when, as is often the case, they really want to be). Our priorities here are pretty much the reverse of those that dominate many other schools. So think about that, and make a wise decision.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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