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It’s a difficult time to be a Michigan State University Spartan. The university is in the news for cringe-worthy reasons. If decades-long sexual assaults perpetrated by faculty member Larry Nassar weren’t horrific enough, we’re learning from ESPN that there may have been broader instances of wrong-doing in MSU’s athletic program. And MSU’s administrative response has been anything but exemplary. ESPN labeled it “Spartan Silence.”

Spartan Silence

While Michigan State has a lot of explaining to do, it’s not as though the situation in East Lansing is completely new to American higher education. Other universities (good ones, too) have faced generically similar problems, including Penn State, Baylor, North Carolina, and Louisville.

It would be too easy to conclude that those problems are “all about athletics.” No doubt athletics play a big role, but athletics aren’t the cause.

I prefer how The Lansing State Journal interpreted MSU’s plight. In a December 3 front-page editorial the newspaper called for the president to resign (she did this week) and also urged MSU to undertake wholesale change. What type of change? Cultural.

What LSJ declared makes sense to me. I spent my 40-year career in higher education—all at Michigan State as a faculty member and administrator—and what I experienced over the decades was a culture change.

Higher education, which had been a largely progressive institution when I entered the Academy, has evolved into a corporate, neoliberal, capitalistic enterprise. What’s happening at MSU now—and at so many other schools—is the manifestation of a social institution that has lost its soul.

Higher education, which had been a largely progressive institution when I entered the Academy, has evolved into a corporate, neoliberal, capitalistic enterprise. What’s happening at MSU now—and at so many other schools—is the manifestation of a social institution that has lost its soul.

For perspective, let me go back nearly 40 years to summer 1978. I’ll never forget what then-acting MSU president Edgar L. Harden said during my faculty orientation. He told us that the people of Michigan didn’t need another University of Michigan because they already had one.

Just what was Harden talking about? That question came up the other day while a colleague and I were talking about the current situation at MSU. We talked about how the College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Nassar’s home college, was founded with the mission of producing general practitioners for rural America. That’s not a sexy mission for a medical college and it won’t move MSU up the national rankings. But it’s a noble pursuit and it’s something America needs.

My colleague and I also talked about how common folks didn’t go to college before the time Michigan State was founded over 150 years ago. They couldn’t. Higher education—including public higher ed—was reserved largely for children of the elite. That picture changed with Michigan State as America’s first “land-grant university” (so-called because schools were established via tracks of land bestowed by the government).

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My colleague and I also talked about MSU historical roots in scientific agriculture. “Moo U” people called it, a place of cows, plows, and sows. Provincial in one way, it’s vital work in many other ways, including ensuring that America and the world has a quality, safe, nutritious, and affordable food supply.

What’s it all add up to? Michigan State was founded to be “a university for the people,” a progressive institution. That declaration is the greatest source of pride about my school.

That declaration extends to how I used to feel about MSU’s executive administration. MSU was known nationally for undertaking progressive initiatives and stands. MSU was a leader in integrating college football. MSU divested endowment resources from apartheid South Africa. MSU emphasized diversity as an attribute of institutional excellence. MSU focused faculty outreach on issues facing the state. MSU involved the faculty extensively in charting institutional directions. Those are progressive initiatives all.

But I also know about the pressures associated with being a university of national standing. Universities compare themselves on a few, narrow pursuits—the criteria on which universities are ranked. Most citizens don’t give a damn about most of those criteria, but American higher education does—so much so, that higher ed struggles with accommodating an expanded notion of institutional excellence.

President Harden talked about that issue—in an indirect way—40 years ago. In unvarnished style, he declared that MSU struggles with being comfortable in its own skin.

I see that dynamic in so many schools today, especially “wanna-be” institutions that view “progress” in terms of being more like the state flagship university. It reminds me of the time that a colleague of mine sought a university presidency. At a campus forum, he told the audience that he disagreed with the school’s expressed desire to be a Top 20 public university. “It’s not worth the effort,” he said. “Be the best U for the state.” He didn’t get an offer.

Being a university for the people is “the skin” I prefer. Besides, worshipping false gods of higher education is utterly destructive. How so? It’s grounded in envy and elitism, powered by hyper-competition, and results in arrogance.

Perhaps the scandal at Michigan State will finally compel higher education to conclude, “We can’t go on like this!” At the very least I hope it will propel culture change at MSU.

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But I also wonder whether the status quo will prevail. What, then, will higher education be worth? Not much is my view.

Frank Fear