By CHINO TORRES
University of Mary Washington Vice President Rick Pearce recently made some statements reported in the Nov. 29 edition of the Bullet, in which he described the university as an “educational service provider” with “customers” that want “a price they feel is an appropriate value.” Those remarks are incredibly disrespectful and reduce the experiences of thousands of people during their time at UMW to a marketplace of transactions. I believe that he should focus on managing the administration and finance rather than attempt to manage our school’s identity and what students are trying to accomplish here.
What happens at UMW is change and growth. It doesn’t matter if you are a 18 year freshman developing their identity, growing up and taking risks, or a 50 year old returning student trying to find a new course in life. The growth that students are attempting here can only take place if the institution’s identity is on sound footing. Influences seem to be coming from those who already had the opportunity in their lives to have those experiences.
The Bullet article that reported the hiring of a consulting firm stated, “Pearce says that, by attending a school of higher education, students are purchasing a degree.
“We have to sell a product and a service that you think is valuable enough to pay for,” Pearce is quoted as saying.
Forgive me, but if my goal here is “purchasing a degree,” then I can do just that at Phoenix Online, Devry, Strayer or any number of companies that have reduced learning to a product and service. Those providers can’t possibly serve the needs of students that attend UMW.
In choosing to attend UMW, I am not buying a degree. I am not even buying an education. I am changing myself, I am challenging myself and I am doing so with faculty that are not providing a product, but are leading me academically. They are leading me to capacities of knowledge and understanding that prepare me for what comes next in life. I challenge the assertion that there should be a direct ratio between what I achieve here and my earning potential post-graduation.
The article mentions a speech given at the University of Virginia on Oct. 15 by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former professor in the Classics Department of UVA. Speaking on the “plight of the public university,” Rawlings assesses that there is a “greater instability” at work in society and that the “old public compact” has eroded. The answer to those challenges is not to further engage in the reductionist discourse. Such rhetoric only frames higher education as a product that is subject to the factors of production and can be streamlined in order to realize greater profits.
In his book, “Closing of the American Mind,” political philosopher Allan Bloom asserts that a liberal arts education introduces people into the “quest for truth.”
That doesn’t mean that there are absolutes of knowledge that can be achieved. The goal is to challenge enduring problems and not merely reflect them. Only a university can provide the haven where those pursuits can take place. A classics major would understand that; a business major would merely chase the latest trend.
Pearce is engaging in rhetoric without understanding the impact of those characterizations.
The originators of that discourse, which frames higher learning as another form of consumption, hope to identify a crisis in higher education that will position them as saviors or solution providers. Their target is traditional academic institutions, and they will conveniently offer the new models of teaching and learning that devalue the learning experience at schools such as UMW.
Consider a New York Times article by Ron Lieber from May 28, 2010 about a New York University graduate who is $100,000 in debt. The example is an outlier that is meant to indirectly suggest the futility of humanities studies. However, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates the actual median student debt to be $12,800. Rising debt is a problem, but it is hardly a crisis that needs to be fixed. Women’s studies majors are not the cause of the problems of higher education.
UMW’s mandate is not to realize greater profits annually. We have no stock that is given to share holders who want their holdings to increase in value. The state government isn’t challenging us to build up our treasury.
Those that fail to realize this are buying into a discourse that is working to turn the pursuit of education into a basic consumption. Private interests hope to capitalize on that consumption with new markets that dilute what UMW and similar institutions provide to all.