Their view: Losing your mission means losing you way

Michael A. MacDowell - Guest Column | March 10th, 2018 10:50 am

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced a broad investigation into the Michigan State’s handling of sexual misconduct by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser. How do these things happen on a major university campus? Perhaps a former Michigan State faculty member and administrator explained it best when he said the university had lost its way.

Dr. Frank Fear, who served in various faculty and administrative capacities for 40 years at MSU, recalled a 1978 meeting with then acting president Edgar L. Harden. At an orientation session, Harden said Michigan didn’t need another University of Michigan because they already had one. President Harden didn’t want MSU to focus upon moving up the national rankings, but rather to stay true to its mission of educating generations of students to pursue productive careers thereby enhancing Michigan and the quality of life for its citizens.

Founded in 1855, as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, MSU became one of the first land-grant colleges under the Morrill Act of 1862. The legislation gave land to support colleges that provided agricultural and mechanical education to students.

Prior to 1862, colleges were mainly for the wealthy. They were far removed from the practical subjects or applied instruction germane to the country’s mid-19th century’s wealth-creating industries of farming and manufacturing. Fear laments the passing of a time when faculty and administration hung close to that initial mission.

Times change and so must institutions. No one can blame Michigan State University for adjusting its mission to adopt to a changing economy and society. However, MSU hasn’t suffered mission creep. Instead over the years, MSU has experienced mission leap.

Michigan State has followed the path of so many other land grant institutions focusing upon activities designed to raise its national standing by stressing research and athletic prowess instead of teaching. Research is an essential part of any university’s function, but in the inevitable tradeoffs between resources spent on research as opposed to teaching, research almost always wins. In the past 30 years, average teaching loads have decreased by 50 percent while since 1993 college enrollments have increased 50 percent. To fill the gap left by professors engaged in research, adjunct instructors and graduate students are hired to replace full-time faculty in the classroom. This impacts the quality of instruction, and it raises college costs.

These issues are hardly unique to Michigan State or other land grant universities for that matter. It is also apparent in many other state-owned and private institutions. The “normal schools” or teacher colleges that became multi-purpose universities have mostly placed faculty research above teaching thereby abandoning their prime mission of instruction while at the same time raising tuition to cover additional costs.

Clearly faculty expenditures are hardly the only reason why college costs have grown so rapidly. Administrative expenses have grown too and in fact have increased more quickly than faculty costs. Further regulations placed on colleges have increased expenditures. New facilities and campus amenities built in response to the desire to enroll more and better students have also raised costs considerably. Athletics is often sighted as a money maker, but in only about 20 of the 228 Division I NCAA universities does the income from athletics equal or exceed their operating costs.

All these issues seem to occur when an institution loses its sense of mission, concentrating instead on its national standing rather than its students. When this occurs, whether it be at Michigan State, or recently at Penn State, Baylor and North Carolina, not only do students suffer, but the entire institution does too.

A return to mission might not have prevented Larry Nasar’s inexcusable actions with female gymnastics. However, it might have gone a long way in convincing the few at MSU who were apparently aware of Nasar’s actions but did not speak up for fear of what these revelations would do to the university’s reputation. Mission is an ethereal thing for a university but sticking to it can mean everything.


Michael A. MacDowell

Guest Column

Michael A. MacDowell is President Emeritus of Misericordia University and Managing Director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Foundation.