Higher learning shouldn’t be about bottom line

In June, the Alaska State Legislature announced the University of Alaska budget for the fiscal year 2004. The increase was so slight that even existing programs have had to be reprioritized according to specifications set by the Board of Regents and the university president’s cabinet.

High priority programs include nursing and computer information and office systems while lower priority programs include, not surprisingly, liberal studies and theater and dance. Sadly, the university’s priorities are a reflection of the economic values that structure our society.

The College of Arts and Sciences, for example, generates about 50 percent of UAA’s total credit hours because it provides all of the general education requirements. Every degree-seeking student who attends UAA takes classes through the CAS. The college’s budget has to provide faculty and infrastructure for every student and the burden increases with enrollment.

It may come as a surprise then, that for the fiscal year 2004, the CAS budget is less than 20 percent of the total university budget.

20 percent.

That leaves the CAS very little room for growth in specialized areas.

It would seem that the university has become so concerned with the bottom line that higher learning is becoming increasingly marginalized.

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UAA professor of political science, Diddy Hitchins expressed it best in a panel discussion last March.

“The university should be a locus of knowledge for its own sake,” Hitchins said. “It should be a locus of disinterested research, not pledged in advance to a utilitarian purpose.”

But instead, students are encouraged to pursue educational goals that support the economic status quo. Gluttonous consumerism, unwavering suspension of disbelief and gas-guzzling SUVs spell big bucks for existing corporate interests, which prey upon human insecurities to promote their products. Self-knowledge, autonomous thought and the search for renewable resources do not, and the institution views these pursuits as secondary and superfluous.

The university is, of course, a business like any other, except that the product the university creates is not static. Students act upon the world in creative, social, political and economic arenas and will continue to do so after leaving the educational system.

As children, we learn that to survive in that system we must surrender our inherent human enthusiasm for knowledge to the constraints of economic feasibility, a paradox that intensifies with each successive grade level.

It is clear that we are expected to be more concerned about our GPA than about understanding a new formula, word or theory. We are taught that a career, not personal fulfillment, is the purpose of education.

“Be practical.” We are told. “Quit dreaming.”

By the time students reach the university level, so much passion has been drained from the pursuit of knowledge that our professors and instructors daily face the Herculean task of trying to re-ignite our curiosity about the world in which we live. How can they hope to do that when forced to limit curriculum due to an increasingly strained budget?

The word university is from Old French universite meaning ‘whole.’ To be a successful university we must function as a whole. The favoring of one educational agenda over another creates competition for funding and undermines the goal of a unified institution.

There need not be a conflict of agenda between vocational training and the arts and sciences. Human progress exists in the synthesis of theory and application.