Thursday, January 23, 2014

Trusting the Arm of Flesh

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi states:
I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4:34)
The university, like most human institutions, can be an arm of flesh. Those who put their trust in such things will, sooner or later, be disappointed. Such appears already to be the case in some quarters. In a recent article Harry R. Lewis of Harvard talks about how universities have operated on a system of trust but their actions have undermined that trust. He focuses on one aspect, the behavior of those ostensibly leading the university.
Many colleges and universities are losing it [trust] because their leaders seem more interested in fame and fortune than in education.
Lewis sees an example of this in the high salaries paid to university administrators:
This year the Brandeis campus was staggered by the news that its former president, having made drastic budget cuts while in office, was by prearrangement paid $600,000 a year in retirement, for doing little or no actual work.

The University of Chicago, Northeastern, Marist College, Columbia, Tufts, and Penn, all institutions with their own financial challenges, paid their presidents more than $2 million per annum. Students would be justified in doubting that these leaders can credibly preach to them about the nobility of self-sacrifice, the honor of public service, or the need to balance the pursuit of the almighty dollar against their civic and moral responsibility to improve the world.
The high level salaries and perks wear away the trust of administrators not just with their superiors but those they supervise as well.
The arrogance of power has brought down several high-profile presidents in recent years, presidents whose boldness was not backed up by the reserves of respect and trust they needed to be granted the benefit of the doubt. John Sexton of NYU, Graham Spanier of Penn State, Summers of Harvard, and serial president Gordon Gee come to mind as men whose abuses of power eventually caught up with them.
Lewis concludes with a sober warning:
The erosion of trust in higher education, arguably well-deserved given such excesses, is not a small matter, because the pursuit of the truth is not a small matter. As [former Harvard president Derek] Bok writes in his book [Higher Education in America] (pp.356-57), “A democratic society badly needs credible, unbiased information from highly knowledgeable people in order to enlighten decision-makers and inform public debate. Thus, the country has much to lose if the objectivity of academic researchers can no longer be taken for granted.”

He was referring to the need for faculty to disclose their financial conflicts of interest more routinely than is current practice in most fields, but his point has much larger relevance.

If the public comes to assume that colleges and universities are like any other businesses, to be suspected of ulterior motives in everything they and their members do, then support for their activities will collapse.
As someone deeply invested in higher education, if support collapses much good will go but those who abused the public's trust will have brought it upon themselves.