Defoliating Academic Groves
The Writing on the Wall: Inside Higher Education in America By Gail Thain Parker '64 Simon and Schuster, 208 pages, $9.95
MAYBE IT WAS the way President Parker, her husband Tom, and Rush enjoyed being photographed cozily eating breakfast around the president's kitchen table. Maybe it was the His and Hers T-shirts that she and Rush wore around campus and at the office. But if, as professor Camille Pagila once commented, "At Bennington, you can do it with the dogs and no one cares," then Bennington students, faculty and trustees must have had other reasons for demanding the ouster of college President Gail Thain Parker in 1976. Parker's need to explain her conflict with the Bennington community leads her to propose startling reforms of higher education in The Writing on the Wall: Inside Higher Education in America. But her personal motives shouldn't obscure the validity of her solutions.
Parker acknowledges that this book will "bring the academic witch-hunters out again in full force, and not just at Bennington." She speaks her mind and, she says, people resent her for it. In fact, some of the reforms she suggests--doing away with the B.A. degree, abolishing tenure--are extremely controversial. It seems plausible that Parker's courage to stand up as the Impertinent Questioner, as she describes herself, caused her dismissal. But we're discussing Bennington College, hailed as the acme of experimentation and innovation for the past twenty years. Bennington is the place that welcomed all the intellectuals and artists whom more respectable institutions like Harvard wouldn't touch. Not the kind of place that would tremble before the drastic changes that Parker proposes.
Joseph Iseman, acting president of Bennington for six months following Parker's dismissal, offers another explanation. According to him, a certain Futures Report Parker presented to Bennington trustees, containing specific measures designed to rescue the college from imminent bankruptcy, was prepared without adequate input from students, faculty, or even the business office.
This was a serious offence at a college that, unlike Harvard, has been used to involvement by the entire community in decisions affecting it. Quoting Parker's statement that "The report is me," Iseman cites the fact that the only faculty members consulted in the preparation of the report were two part-time teachers and Rush Welter. He describes Welter, an American Civilization teacher with whom Parker had been publicly intimate for some time, as "a faculty maverick whose views had for years been contrary to those of his colleagues." Professor Paglia adds that "there was a feeling that educational policy was being made in the boudoir." All of this has, of course, had the predictable and unfortunate result of clouding what Gail Parker actually proposes, and it will continue to make it easy for torchbearers of the status quo to dismiss her ideas on the future of higher education as the ravings of "a female Mencken."
Whatever the propriety of Parker's dealings with the faculty and in her private life, she has contributed significant ideas about educational policy. And while The Writing on the Wall sometimes suffers from the limited perspective of a small college, it redeems itself by coming to grips with the overemphasis on credentials and the drawbacks of tenure.
Parker herself needed to cut back the number of tenured faculty members at Bennington for financial reasons. Still, she points out that, in general, instead of producing the kind of controversial and thought-provoking research that the protection of tenure is supposed to encourage, too many teachers simply hide behind its security.
Professors say, "We need tenure because we are dangerous to society." The officers of the Association of University Professors have assumed that no one will speak up unless his or her job is secure. My own hunch would be that no one who puts much stock in job security is likely to speak up under any circumstances.
Parker sees a heavily tenured faculty as a constricting force which leads to inbreeding of ideas, since tenured faculty tend not to offer tenure to those with points of view widely differing from their own. And she criticizes the "up-or-out" policy of promotion of assistant professors, which Harvard practices, as unnecessarily deterimental to the careers of teachers who are not promoted. Once a teacher has been refused tenure at any college, she points out, he or she is practically guaranteed unemployability at any other institution.
She critizes the lack of peer evaluation and scruitiny after tenure as an inherent weakness. To replace tenure, she advocates negotiating renewable faculty contracts. In addition, Parker feels that since only a small proportion of faculty members engage in scholarly research, it makes little sense to limit their careers to academia. She suggest that more teachers become part-time and pursue a career in the outside world. She reasons that for professors, greater exposure to the world outside the Ivy walls would considerably upgrade their contribution to teaching.
PARKER BELIEVES that many professors today are trying "above all to reassure themselves that they are invaluable members of society." She explains the arguments so prevalent today for "a return to core courses, grand syntheses of ethincs and history, morality and nature,' as the outcome of professional insecurity. Thus, the result of the Sixties is that the ideal of disinterested scholarship has been replaced by "the image of the professor who can inculcate values in the hearts and minds of the young."
"The grim zeal of many of the most talented students today, eager to do well in high school in order to do well in college in order to do well in law school and, presumably, in later life...reduces professors to functionaries; their knowledge is less important than their certifying function...the best students don't consider academic careers; indeed they tend to think their teachers weren't very bright to have decided against medical school. Their doubts only exacerbate the professors' self-doubts."
However, Parker does not sufficiently examine the validity of the students' shift towards preprofessionalism. While she emphasizes teachers' self-doubt, she fails to consider whether students should entertain doubts about their own careers.
Instead, she adopts the position that students today are being lured to college campuses by promotion that wildly misrepresents what they should expect out of the education itself. She deplores current marketing strategies such as the "Fly Adelphi" campaign, or Findlay College's "It's great to be a big fish in a small college" recruitment package, featuring Charley the Tuna. College marketting spawns pseudo-events like meetings on curriculum reform, which, she feels, are "principally planned, planted or excited for the purpose of being reported or reproduced...The harsh truth is that all this activity is generally a waste of time as far as providing better education for students."
She also believes that students are being duped into believing that a B.A. degree will ensure success in the corporate job market. Parker's alarm at what she sees as credential worship leads her to recommend abolishing the B.A. degree in order to shift focus to the value of the education itself.
Parker reserves her greatest criticism for faculty attempts to gain control over administrative decisions. Her experience with the Bennington faculty leads her to assert that college professors are unwilling or unable to share responsibility for the financial solvency of their institutions. They refuse to make realistic projections about the future of higher education, based on the financial problems facing them. This refusal to contribute in an effective way to solving critical problems reduces their insistence on greater input to a joke, she says. Parker may have overreacted to their short-sightedness, though, by failing to solicit adequate faculty input for her Futures Report. One feels that she has constructed an elaborate excuse for here behavior, while making a fairly valid point about the ineffectiveness of faculty committees.
The colleges which would be best advised and are most likely to seriously consider Parker's proposals for the reform of higher education are smaller colleges and colleges in financial trouble. Parker's proposals would have the greatest opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness at these institutions, which need more immediate solutions to problems of inflation, falling birthrate and decreased enrollment. Her remarks are less useful when applied to institutions like Harvard, which are less preoccupied with coping. This lopsidedness of her perspective diminishes somewhat the importance of The Writing on the Wall.
The controversy provoked by "While Alma Mater Burns," an article she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly which was later followed by a full column devoted to letters of response, adequately demonstrates that she has produced proposals considered worthy of examination, by many, if principally by those who find her worthy of violent rebuttal. As Harold Howe II, vice president for Education and Research at the Ford Foundation said, "Gail Parker is worth hearing--I hope some gutsy board of trustees will give her another shot at a college presidency."