Gantrys and Babbits

The basic value of intellectual integrity is being betrayed by the University’s prestige drive.

In Wednesday’s column, I attempted to show that the University’s goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world was unachievable and meaningless. This second part addresses the harmful effects the pursuit of this goal will have upon the University.

The University’s strategic plan will limit access to the University and foster a culture of intellectual dishonesty. The pursuit of the University’s elitist goal will result in more students being denied the sort of education the University was meant to provide. And the promotion of a nonsensical goal is a denial of a core academic value: critical thinking.

University President Bob Bruininks might believe the higher average ACT scores of the 2005 freshman class is something to brag about, but it also means that students whose ACT scores would have gained them admission a few years ago were denied entry to the University.

More importantly, the pursuit of the University’s goal will result in more students being priced out of a University education. In the past five years, the cost of attending the University has increased at a rate of about five times the rate of inflation. The University’s plans probably will accelerate this trend.

From 1993 to 2003, the University increased administrative and professional staff members – excluding tenured faculty members – by 74 percent, according to the Office of the Legislative Auditor State of Minnesota’s evaluation report summary. Recently, we have seen the establishment of the Office of Accountability, which has given us the nonconcrete “aspirational goal” – i.e., the goal that is not a goal. The University also is adding a vice president for accessibility – presumably in place of the General College. A further addition, the vice president of international programs, will be able to inform Parisians and Muscovites of our newfound world status.

If the University’s goal is indeed a vain and pernicious pursuit, how is it that it has been endorsed by the University Senate, Faculty Consultative Committee, deans, regents and McKnight Professors (E. Thomas Sullivan, “The Facts: Strategic Positioning,” The Minnesota Daily, Oct. 19)? How could Minnesota’s intellectual center have made such a blatant error?

To understand this mystery, it helps to be familiar with the work of a much-neglected Minnesotan, Sinclair Lewis. While he did not plumb the depths of the human condition, he did do a creditable job of trolling the shallows. Two of his characters are relevant here: George Babbit, the small-time businessman whose views and values are unthinkingly adopted from the local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club; and Elmer Gantry, the hypocritical preacher who appeals to the fears and baser motives of his audience to advance his drive for status and power.

We easily can imagine a group of Babbit-like administrators brainstorming and coming up with the University’s strategic plan:

“We need a goal. Something to excite the people. Make ’em stand up and take notice.”

“How about, ‘Let’s be top three in Big Ten?’ “

“Big Ten? Let’s make it the top three in the country.”

“No, I got it: top three in the world.”

“Brilliant, George.”

Such Babbit-y boosterism may be endearing, but it is out of place in an institution where one of its core values should be critical thinking.

It is a truism that to lead a good life, you need an income of at least $50,000 a year. But it is a fact that 25 percent of working-age adults with a college degree earn less than $35,000 a year. And even those among the happy elect are insecure: globalization, downsizing, mergers and the general flightiness of capital quickly can tumble them among the lost souls. So when University Vice President Gantry tells students their degree will sound to future employers like a degree from Harvard – eager for salvation, anxiety overcoming reason ­- they are quick to believe.

Many faculty members, rightly or wrongly, think that if there were any justice in the world, they would be at Berkeley or Yale. So when Vice President Gantry promises to make this a reality by turning the University into Berkeley, ambition blinding reason, they believe.

And so the basic academic value of intellectual integrity is betrayed.

A more worthy aspiration than to be one of the top three public universities in the world would be to become the kind of institution that values inclusivity over exclusivity and that fosters critical thinking and intellectual integrity. We would be better off if the University were a community whose members learned to recognize the Babbits and Gantrys of this world, whether they met them on Main Street or Northrop Mall.

Robert Katz is a University library assistant. Please send comments to [email protected]