What IS a College?

This morning’s Daily Briefing from the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a link to an op-ed by Scott D. Miller, the president of Virginia Wesleyan College. In it, he talks the way that you’d expect a college president to talk—in platitudes, yes, but more centrally about colleges as businesses. Regarding the various threats facing smaller schools, he writes:

Those willing to take an objective look at their missions, their capacity for innovation, their planning and financial models, and their relationships with home communities and synergistic partners will stand the best chance of remaining viable. 

Dilbert could not have done better.

Language aside, though, we have to remember that this is a man charged with running a very large and very complicated business, with over forty divisions. And just as Vivek Sankaran, the CEO of Frito-Lay North America, doesn’t often grab a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from the rack at the mini-mart, the president of any college has a remarkably distant relationship to what happens in a classroom, or a dormitory, or the admissions office. For its executives, a snack food manufacturer or a college is a money-harvesting machine, a predator whose metabolism burns through resources, always on the alert for its next meal.

The fact is that higher education is any number of different things, depending on where an individual stands within it. For permanent faculty, a school is an employer, in daily contact reduced to a single department. For contingent faculty, a school is a gig, a logistical and navigational challenge that must be met fresh every day. It’s also a statement of faith—that membership in this community is so emotionally important that they’re willing to endure remarkable suffering and disrespect to remain its tenuous members.

And for students? That experience varies enormously, based on the kind of school you go to and how you got there and various aspects of your identity and all of the other cultural resources you have available. But, although it’s passe, let’s think about the student experience of a college—any college—through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

For far too many students, the basic physiological needs of food and shelter are inconsistent or unavailable. For women or people of color or people who are LGBTQ or have physical disabilities, the second level of safety is also not taken for granted, can be withdrawn without warning. Maslow claimed that if the more basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully difficult to rise to the challenges of those higher and more ephemeral levels.

But if we could take all of levels 1 and 2 for granted, if every student came to us comfortably housed and decently fed and free from concern over physical safety, the most fundamental work of an institution would then be to help all of its members feel that they belong, that they are valued members of the community. If you don’t feel like others value your presence, if they don’t actively embrace your membership, then it’s worth wondering if you should come back for another semester.

It’s that layer, the sense of college as fellowship, as family, that’s missing at too many institutions and for too many of its members. Community colleges, for instance, are essentially every-man-or-woman-for-themselves experiences, with little opportunity or mechanism for larger collegiate life. That’s equally true for their faculty, the vast majority of whom have no affiliation (and remember that the root of affiliation is filius or son, a beloved and valued member of the family). When we look at a college’s retention and graduation rates, we can wonder about the merits of the academic offerings or the selectivity of admissions that allows the unprepared to give it a shot anyway, but we should consider another and probably more important fact—coming back to school for another semester is fundamentally a decision to rejoin a community. If that community doesn’t love you, it’s harder to make that decision.

So yes, a college is its police force and its accounting department and its grounds. A college is its financial aid office and its student center and its food service. But unless all of those are focused on the larger fact of being a family, of valuing and welcoming every member, then it’s all just Cheetos.

Wintry Mix

We’re having another strange winter. Last week, we had three straight nights below zero, and today and tomorrow are going to be in the mid-40s. The roof is bare after a week with over a foot of snow. The poor road crew is going nuts, trying to deal with plowing roads that won’t freeze hard, using up a winter’s worth of sand and salt before February ever arrived. (Our Cargill road salt this year, by the way, was sourced in Egypt. We’re all globalists now…)

Nora and I decided to take this opportunity of kind-of-warm weather to let the wood stove cool completely, so that tomorrow morning I can shovel all the ash out to get ready for tomorrow evening’s return to single-digit temps. And even though I turned the furnace up this morning, it’s still cold without the bright fire consuming the dead leftovers of our woodlot.

My writing today feels a lot like that. I’m writing the Town’s audit self-study, and proofreading someone else’s work on writing the annual report. I’m working on marketing material for The Adjunct Underclass, and offering markups on someone else’s novel. I’m waiting for a colleague to deliver a copy of the Town’s lease for the volunteer fire department, so I can talk with our attorney about how we might modify it. And somewhere, in the middle of that, I’m trying to write a story, of Kurt and Sarasa and the ways that they find themselves in a half-familiar, half-foreign place. It’s a day that’s neither snow nor rain nor dry, neither warm nor cold, neither clear nor dark. It’s a wintry mix.

Updike once wrote that he had three offices in his home: one for fiction, one for non-fiction, and one for poetry. That’s lovely, but most of us have just the one room with the one laptop and the cold stove, and we have to create another way to become multiple people, each of our selves able to focus fully on that one thing as it presents itself. If we can’t divide the world by space, we have to do it by time, setting up calendar stripes of different colors, each for its own purpose.

But there are days where the colors run together and become mud. A painter friend once told me the legend of Seattle Beige, the bland institutional color that comes from mixing together every can of America’s returned paint into a mammoth re-use vat. Ninety percent of it is white, and the other colors all even themselves out in large enough quantities to turn a sort of boring sandy tan. That’s the color of a writer’s mind on some cold February days.

Ecosystem Failure

When I was in grade school, the summers were increasingly marked by massive die-offs of a small fish called the alewife. Through a blizzard of invasive species and other human interventions, the alewife population boomed to the point where annual starvations became normal, and the beaches of southern Lake Michigan had as many as twenty billion dead alewives washed ashore in the summer of 1967.

Dead alewives floating atop the water in Lake Michigan, so many that they cover the entire surface of the harbor.

I’m writing this shortly after the announcement that Green Mountain College, eight miles away from here in Poultney VT, will cease operations at the end of this semester. After the announcement that Hampshire College won’t enroll a new Fall cohort. After the closings of Mount Ida College and Newbury College, after Wheelock merged with BU, after the risk announcements for the College of St. Joseph… I’m seeing dead fish on the beach again.

I think it’s unproductive to ask who’s to blame for this. What we’re seeing is an ecosystem collapse with dozens of contributing variables. In fact, I think it’s even worse than that. The collapse of higher ed comes from an attempt to optimize each individual aspect of the endeavor, with nobody watching the whole. It comes from tens of millions of individually intelligent decisions. We’ve been so smart about the details that we forgot about the purpose. And now the lake is dying, and the fish are washing ashore.

Saturday Morning

Hard to know why Ed wakes up so early. Somewhere between four and five, usually. He walks into the bedroom and starts whining at the side of the bed. So you roll out, trying not to wake Nora, and Ed follows you into the kitchen. Sometimes Simon follows, if he’s not curled down next to Nora’s knees. You check their food and water and litter boxes, put a little more wood into the stove, close the door between the kitchen and hallway, and go back to bed.

That often doesn’t help much. You’re awake, churning, trying all the meditative practices to clear your mind. But a writer’s mind is never clear, really.

So you get back up and dressed this time, make coffee, and start the day. Whatever it was that the cats wanted before is lost to us all—Simon’s curled in front of the fire, Ed on a kitchen chair, Nora still asleep.

You can get some decent work done.