Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Last week was one of those weeks of the kind that was rough when I was half the age I am now. It was preceded by an intensive week of 16-hour days catching up on and finishing an editorial project due Oct. 1. I got it submitted electronically at 1 a.m. Oct. 2, and then at 6 a.m. left for a trip that involved more academic work. It was busy, hectic, but enjoyable because I got to visit a number of universities and the Henderson Mine that is in competition with Homestake for being the site of the national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.
During one of the low-key moments, I was on a campus with some time to spend before an appointment when I was invited to sit in on a rehearsal of a concert wind ensemble. The small-world syndrome was at play. The ensemble included a player who attended Northern for a time and the conductor had applied for a job there, but was turned down. That rehearsal was a revisit to the reasons a university campus can be such an exciting and invigorating place. For an hour and half, I watched some of the most intensive and productive work I have witnessed in some time.
First of all, the players were selected by audition, so they had the essentials of musicianship under command. Then they were expected to come to rehearsal knowing the music and giving it their total concentration. The conductor worked through four compositions during the session. He would stop the group, say a few words about what he wanted refined or played differently, refer to the measure in the arrangement, count off the tempo, and they played immediately. Usually, they played what he asked the first time. It was both an exhausting and exhilirating experience to see people work that hard and that successfully.
After the rehearsal was over, a colleague I was with commented that if professors held that level of expectation and worked students that hard at Northern, they would be considered abusive and unresponsive to student needs.
NSU experienced an 8 percent decline in enrollments this year. It has been in a trend of decline for some years. The level of expectations and the work required of students has much to do with its reputation and the reason students come there.
During the 20 years I taught there, I was well aware of the culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-achievement that pervades the NSU campus. However, students and faculty with talent, purpose, and the desire to learn and work kept the anti-achievement forces in check. Still, I recall vividly a commencement address by a highly respected member of the Northern faculty in which the humanities requirements for the liberal arts degree were derided and ridiculed. I recall those Friday afternoons when the drinking age was 18 and students had refrigerators stocked with beer in their dorm rooms, and the beer breath in the classroom from the few who showed up could make your eyes water. And I recall when, as an officer in a faculty organization, I was asked if our legal counsel could help two young women in a residence hall terminate their rental agreements. They were harassed by other students because they spent time in their rooms studying. Their floor mates said that by being prepared for classes, they were making life difficult for other students. We got them moved out and into an off-campus apartment, but that did not end the problem. Some of the students from the residence hall converged outside their apartment and rang the door bell and made a commotion in the neighborhood that did not end until they were hauled off in police cruisers. And I can remember the campus being stunned when two major companies declined to come to an employment fair. They said they had not found the campus to supply the level of talent and knowledge that they required.
Perhaps, the most difficult moment I recall came at a college recruiting fair in Sioux Falls. Various colleges and universities put up tables and booths in a large convention center so that high school students and their parents could shop around and talk with faculty from the schools. Groups of giggling and smirking students kept going by our booth making comments about Northern State Junior High School. Despite the credible work of faculty and students at Northern, its reputation was being formed by the anti-achievers and the perpetual partiers. The moment was a stunning and revealing one for the faculty who were present.
Northern's primary problem is the Board of Regents. The Board is composed of political appointees who hold the requisite views for the party in power, but few have any knowledge or experience of how education actually works. In a word, most of them are bean counters. They hire administrators to carry out their dictates to run the campus like a business, not to lead it to a high level of academic performance. Over the years I have been connected with Northern, the programs have been cut and the faculty treated like low-level academic serfs.
In order to generate tuition to keep the university running, the school accepts almost anybody who applies. Although it, like its sister universities, states entrance requirements, it ignores them. ACT scores, high school transcripts, and grade point averages are set as criteria for college admission, but they are overlooked in favor of filling classrooms with relatively warm bodies that can pay tuition and fees.
As a faculty who was involved in the design and administration of placement tests for students, I worked with the statistics. In one freshman class I recall, 54 percent of the incoming freshmen did not meet the admission requirements stated by the university. The absurd part is that the Board of Regents complain about how many incoming students need remedial and development work because of inadequate high school preparation. They set a practice of accepting anyone who can pay tuition, to subsidize the "real" students, and then they contend that the high schools are not doing their job. If the high schools have provided a fair assessment of student performance and potential on their transcripts, they have done their job. Another ploy of the regents is that they admit hordes of students who need developmental course work, but they put a limit on how many developmental programs can be offered. Consequently, a great number of students who are not prepared for college-level work are admitted into college courses.
However, in most places, students who have not performed well in high school have a route to college. They generally attend community college classes to bring their language, math, and science skills up to a level that permits them to enter college-level classes with some chance of success.
At Northern, we offered remedial classes. Students resent deeply being placed into a "bonehead" English or math class. So we tried the laboratory route to try to deal with the resentment and obstinence that being stigmatized by the "remedial" label creates. Every scheme we tried was crippled at the outset by the limitation of funds. One of our more successful programs had regular faculty on duty in the writing laboratory to oversee the work of assistants who worked with the students. When it comes to writing, we know that a great majority of students improve to the college level if they are required to write every day and if their writing is reviewed by competent instructors. That program devolved into ineffectiveness when the university decided it could not afford to assign regular faculty to supervise the instruction.
When regular faculty supervision was dropped, the instruction was left to other students who often did not engage the needs. One student told me her sessions in the writing laboratory were taken up with her tutor bragging ab0ut the fact that she was teaching other college students in writing.
The drag-down is that underprepared students are admitted into regular college classes. If the faculty maintains high standards of performance and gives grades that actually reflect student performance, they are rebuked for their teaching by administrators and complained about by students who can't handle the work. And so, they dummy down the courses. One of my advisees who wanted to major in science told me that in a year of a college course at Northern, she had not covered any material that she had not had in high school.
That conflict between bringing the underprepared up to par and meeting the levels of better students is Northern's major problem.
Many schools in the past quarter century have raised their standards by establishing enrollment caps. They do not admit students who show no record of academic success or interest, and they do not hesitate to flunk out those who can't or won't do the work. But when a school is financially tied to admitting the underprepared, it does have some obligation to offer them a chance.
Northern is not to be faulted for admitting students with poor high school records. It has traditionally been an institution that has offered students of meager backgrounds some knowledge and skills that permit them to compete in the larger national community. While admissions policies set the stage for academic success, they are not the only factor. The reputation of a college or university is not built upon the level at which students enter, but the competitive level they have achieved when they graduate. And that means offering enough courses at a level of instruction that enable students to be competitive with graduates from the more prestigious institutions.
When Northern graduates are vigorously recruited and show a high level of matriculation into graduate schools, the university's reputation will change. For most of my tenure at Northern, I spent many hours writing letters of reference for our education majors who were going into language arts instruction. They were considered competent, well-prepared, and were sought after throughout the nation. Our students were placed from California to Massachusetts, and no institution had as many graduates teaching in South Dakota schools as Northern. But problems at the administrative level soon trickled down to the faculty level, and a reputation that had been built up over for almost a century was wiped out in a decade.
As suggested above, Northern has not had leadership that has promoted genuine academic achievement among faculty or students. One of the recent presidents believed that image was everything. While he was tinkering with staffing and programs that were hidden by public relations programs, he insisted that "you are what you appear to be." One history professor earned the president's everlasting ire when he said, "And we appear to be liars." The fact is that in education, public relations and image cannot disguise the actual level of achievement of faculty and students.
Savvy guidance counselors tell students and parents what the tell-tale signs of an inferior institution are:
1. A faculty that competes for eminence by demeaning other faculty, whether on the individual, departmental, or division level. Insitutions with faculty who do not respect each other and engage in back-biting and fractious politics are never academically strong.
2. A student body that shows little sign of academic activity. Check out the library and the computer laboratories, the counselors say. If they are busy, that means students are working. If they are sparsely populated, that means not much intellectual activity is taking place.
3. Where do the school guides rank the insitution and on what basis? NSU ranks in the fourth tier of the U.S. News ranking, for example. That means it ranks with the bottom one-fourth of U.S. colleges.
Northern has been a valuable asset to South Dakota and the region. It has served as a cultural beacon and educational opportunity. It distinguished itself recently when it helped many of the 800 employees of Imprimus, a computer peripherals manufacturer, develop skills and credentials that made it possible for them to find good employment when the company closed its plant in Aberdeen and moved to the Pacific Rim. It performed a similar service during the agricultural crisis of the late 1980s when many farm families were displaced and had to reestablish their lives on a different basis.
The question with Northern is all academic. It simply needs to let the achievers, not the connivers, set the pace and determine its reputation. Then students will come.