Status Quo

I fondly recall the “good old days” when life was much simpler. At least that’s how I like to remember them. Perhaps life was not really all that simple at the time. Nature has blessed us with brains that, over time, tend to forget all the little irritants that make life less than serene, so the past is often looked at more fondly than the present. Lately I’ve been reminding myself of this in an attempt to make my current work life seem less absurd, but I’m finding it difficult to believe that I will ever look back on this as the “good old days.”

These were my thoughts as I sat in a faculty meeting where there was a lively discussion for 40 minutes on the rules, guidelines and composition for the promotion, reappointment and tenure committees. In reality it was creating a façade for a predominately political process -- equivalent to arguing over what clothes should be worn by a politician.

Following this discussion a presentation was given about how our now five-month old strategic plan and mission statement needed to be reexamined because some of our peers had gone to a conference where they were told that value statements and vision statements had to precede mission statements and strategic planning. We didn’t have a value statement or vision statement, so it was suggested that a committee be formed for this purpose.

I sat and marveled at how an organization, whose primary purpose is to educate and prepare students to be productive citizens, can meet for two hours or more on a regular basis and rarely, if ever, mention this or directly deal with it. I was reminded of the time a number of years ago, when the U.S. Congress had become swamped with so many committees that they formed yet another committee to study the problem.

Contributing to this subterfuge is the fact that we have developed a rather negative view of the concept of a “status quo,” even if the status quo for an institution of higher education happens to involve improving and educating young minds. And so we tend to search for ways to feel that we are improving rather than maintaining the status quo. In doing so, we too often get side tracked into “gilding the lily” rather than growing more lilies. We are attempting to build bigger and better vehicles, and arguing about where they are going without much regard for the occupants of vehicles, what their needs are, and what is best for them.

Classroom processes have changed little over the last several decades, except for the emergence of multimedia use. Courses do get updated in content, but the status quo in the classroom is alive and well. The bulk of the efforts in higher education to improve on the status quo are mostly ‘feel good’ efforts that have questionable value to anyone beyond the walls where the meetings are held. The real value added comes from faculty, working individually in their classrooms, offices and homes, preparing their lectures, reviewing student work, and giving students helpful feedback.

You cannot improve the behavior of your pet dog by building a better dog house and putting a mission statement on the side of it – not that students can or should be compared to pet dogs. But unless the actions we take in our meetings translate into actions to improve the experiences for students in and out of the classrooms, we are wasting a lot of time and energy. I rarely see this happening. Perhaps my old mentor from the Indiana University was right. He taught in the higher education program there and kept reminding us doctoral candidates that “colleges and universities exist for the faculty – not for the students.”  I thought he was crazy at the time, but after 25 years of teaching, I am afraid he might have been right.