Friday, May 2, 2014

BYU and the Academic Arms Race: The quest for a Rhodes

My message to our peer institutions. . .is really a lament that universities too often elevate glitz over goodness.

The above statement came from a 2013 Huffington Post Column written by Luis Calingo, President of .  In the piece, he comments on the "gold-plating" institutions engage in as an attempt to improve the "prestige" and attractiveness of their campuses for parents and students.  Whether its luxurious residence halls, big-time college sports programs, or academically elite honors colleges, the goal is largely the same -- to stay competitive in the institutional arms race and provide fodder for shiny brochures and national tv spots that will attract students, parents, and (most importantly) their money.
Woodbury University

While BYU does a lot of things well, we can't in good conscience say that we aren't actively trying to run and win this arms race (see, for example, recent decisions regarding athletics and residence halls).  The most recent attempt to win the academic arms race has been focused on ending BYU's 15-year Rhodes Scholar drought.  The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and (arguably) most celebrated international fellowship in the world and provides funding each year for 32 of the brightest young scholars in the world to pursue their work at Oxford.

Clearly, it's one of the holy grails for an institution, garnering invaluable PR in terms of recruiting future students and faculty members.  And, the Rhodes Trust (who award and administer the fellowship program) have consistently delivered on their promise to use the award to prepare future leaders having produced the likes of Bill Clinton, Edward Hubble, +Cory Booker, Bill Bradley, and David Souther.  So, it's not surprising that institutions are keenly interested in producing Rhodes Scholars on their campuses.

But, what's the cost (literally & figuratively)?

In the same Huff Post column referenced above, Salingo goes on to comment:

In my view, the so-called arms race distracts--if not detracts--from the educational mission.  It does so by siphoning both resources and focus, and it paints a less-than-comprehensive picture of the institution beneath the shiny veneer.

He makes a strong argument (one that I've also made about Honors programs, and that is made even more articulately by Murray Sperber in Chapter 13 of his excellent book Beer and Circus) and raises important questions about the lengths institutions go to in order to run "the race" with their peer institutions (or, in many cases, those they wish were their peers).

Though BYU has been more insulated from the economic downturn that has ravaged higher education over the last ten years (in large part thanks to a very shrewd, wise, and I think inspired Board of Trustees), resources are still scarce.  Approvals for new FTEs, additional research money, or travel funds are becoming more and more rare.  So recent resource allocations for the newly-branded Office of National Scholarships, Fellowships, and Programs (formerly known as the Office of Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships--which didn't help the perception of the office as being elitist) have been both curious and concerning.

Over the last two years, a new Associate Dean of Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships has been appointed, an Associate Director of Prestigious Scholarships position has been created, and huge amounts of travel funds have been allocated for both of these individuals to spend extended amounts of time in the UK (as well as around the US) learning how to prepare students to apply for and win a number of prestigious scholarships and fellowships, most notably the Rhodes.

Part of the irony in all of this is that these activities fall under the umbrella of BYU's College of Undergraduate Education, whose mission is to "supervise and foster essential university-wide elements of the baccalaureate."  In all fairness, I think the Dean of Undergraduate Education at BYU is just taking marching orders from administrators above him who, for whatever reason, have made it their goal to make sure the Rhodes drought ends and ends soon.  I just hope we get our holy grail before we start teaching 2,000 section seats of American Heritage and get rid of the last few full-time faculty members teaching first-year courses.  These recent efforts and decisions are neither essential or university-wide and I think, bordering on criminal (at best, foolish) given the ample opportunities to improve the general education experience at BYU.

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