The Professor’s Farewell
Dr. Stephen Richards locked the door behind him, tested it carefully, and made the short trek from his office in the Social Sciences Administration Building to a classroom in Harrison Hall, behind the Woodson Library. It was a trip he had made hundreds of times. More than likely, this would be the last such trip in his academic career.
It was Friday, the last day of summer term, and few students were on campus. He remembered back when he had first arrived here, the ink on his Ph.D. diploma hardly dry, never suspecting that he would possibly be teaching the same courses for the same department at the same institution for four decades.
In those four decades, he had physically changed along with the campus. His beard was now grey, and his bones creaked when he walked down the polished granite stairs to the department’s bank of elevators. Perhaps he had put on “only” two extra pounds each year, but they added up. Now 73, his obesity was only one of his chronic health problems, exacerbated by age and lack of exercise.
In contrast, the University had aged more gracefully, expanding away from the town’s main street in three directions, sprouting up buildings of modern glass and concrete that changed the character away from the ivy-covered brick walls that he had known when first arriving. The University had a voracious appetite, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, consuming nearby parking lots, small businesses, student and other low-income ramshackle housing, a couple of factories, and even a hospital. The acquisition of land for expansion was accomplished with some of the same ruthlessness, although not on quite the scale, as the early settlers of America had shown expanding westward at the expense of the indigenous population.
When he first taught here, locking doors of his office behind him had been unnecessary. But times had changed, not only on urban university campuses, but on relatively isolated bucolic campuses such as Tidwell University, as well. Several weeks earlier, someone had broken into the department’s offices and made off with seven computers. Just this summer term, there had been two sexual assaults reported on campus, an armed robbery, a carjacking, and several dorm room break-ins.
On this Friday morning, the air was pungent with the odor of burning leaves. Although fall term was still three weeks away, leaves were dropping on campus, creating piles for a multitude of grey squirrels to scamper through, chasing each other playfully. Students were playing touch football on the quad, adjacent to the classroom building. Oh, to be 19 again, he mused.
I’ll miss football, he thought to himself, reveling again in the memory of Tidwell just missing out on being in the NCAA Division 1 title game the previous season. When it came to football, the Tidwell administration gave that program a virtual blank check, even when there was a hiring freeze and a temporary ban on using department money to pay academic conference attendance expenses.
Tidwell had done everything legally possible, and sometimes not so legally, to improve its chances for national prominence that accompanied success on the gridiron. “Student” athletes were recruited to play for the institution, some of whom were functionally illiterate. For the glory of Tidwell, some students were provided with not only room, board, and books, but also full-time tutors and special classes. That was the best that could be offered, once the NCAA put a stop to the gifts of cash, cars, and clothes to star recruits from sports-obsessed alumni.
Some professors at Tidwell had resigned several years earlier rather than yield to the substantial pressure from the administration to give certain football players a break on their grades so they could remain eligible to play. Eventually, the administration had wised up and sequestered most of the football squad in their own classes, with their own professors, away from the “real” students. Doing so was expensive, but it had been a great investment. Donations from proud alumni soared with the nearly undefeated season last year, enough to fund not only the costs of the football program but of Tidwell’s entire lineup of NCAA Division 1 sports for both men and women.
Although perhaps only a third of the football team’s entering freshmen ever graduated, none of them ever questioned whether they were being exploited. On the contrary, most would have said their five years at Tidwell were the best of their lives, even if most were relegated to working in dead-end jobs rather than becoming millionaires as high draft choices on an NFL team, as many had expected to be when they accepted a scholarship offer to play for the legendary coach of Tidwell, Buckets Henry. It had been rumored for years that Coach Henry’s salary was more than ten times that of the President of Tidwell, confirmed when the federal government required the top salaries of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations to be disclosed on the organization’s 990 federal tax return. The line-item on the return, of course, did not include the income Henry received from his radio show, endorsements, and royalties on products.
The consensus was that since the Tidwell president had never personally led a Tidwell team to an undefeated national championship 13-0 season and a major bowl bid worth almost $15 million, the salary shelled out to Henry was worth every penny. Although this money had to be shared with other schools in the conference, the spike in sales of official clothing and souvenirs with the school’s logo as a consequence of success on the gridiron more than compensated for this.
Twice in its history, the Tidwell board of directors had been forced to make a choice between keeping either the school’s president or the football coach. It had not been one of the tougher decisions it had had to make.
Other than a year off almost 20 years ago for a well-deserved sabbatical leave, Dr. Richards had not missed teaching fall term in his 40 years with the University. This would be something he would miss the most. There was something magical about fall term. He would sometimes sit outside on a bench in the quad in early September, adjacent to one of the residence halls, and watch parents drop off their sons and daughters. Many of these children, now young adults, would be having their initial experience of being on their own, away from home for any extended period of time.
If it had been his choice, Dr. Richards would have continued to teach until he died or was unable to stand up in front of a classroom. And with the amazing state-of-the-art technology to which he had access, even the inability to stand up in a classroom would not have deterred him from physically being able to teach classes. The University had an active online master of public administration (MPA) program, and several years earlier, Dr. Richards had experimented by teaching one of the classes. It simply wasn’t his cup of tea, he remembered. He could not look into the eyes of his students and see whether what he was saying was sinking in. Overall, he found that teaching online required much more work on his part. He did appreciate that the online environment encouraged his students to think about a response to a question. In a classroom, his students appeared to be in a competition to raise their hands first and be recognized (at least those who deigned to participate, which seemed to be declining with every passing year). Online, the playing field was leveled.
On the other hand, he could barely keep up with the rigors of online teaching. He did not have a good experience; the department had been forced to bring in a Ph.D. student to take over his class after the fourth week after students complained that he was two weeks behind in responding to classroom posts.
A realist, he recognized that the University would likely try to exploit the advantages of online education, as it could charge students full price for courses without all of the high overhead of having support facilities. It was indeed a lucrative enterprise. But he remained skeptical that students really learned anything of value. His department had lately been advertising for online adjuncts, recognizing that it could pay salaries that might be a third of what it would have to pay for recruited assistant professors, and it would avoid having to pay any benefits, as well. The jury was still out, in his mind, over whether students were learning anything by typing into a keyboard, perhaps in the middle of the night with loud rock music in the background and the air filled with marijuana fumes.
But who’s to say they are learning anything of value in conventional classes, he mused. Things have changed so much in 40 years.
It was not really his choice to retire. He really wasn’t sure why the department’s leadership found him to be expendable after 40 years. Being a tenured faculty member, he technically couldn’t be fired. In his younger days, he had considered the tenure process simply another strategy colleges and universities had adopted to institutionalize mediocrity.
No one in the administration had ever directly asked for his resignation; rather, it was a series of explicit and implicit messages, some subtle, some not so. Perhaps the first sign of his falling out of favor was his appointment to the Parking Appeals Committee. His applications to attend various academic conferences, once approved routinely, were now denied. He became more suspicious after he judged that his student advisor caseload had inexplicably doubled. He noticed that not only the administrators, but even faculty members whom he had mentored, were beginning to avoid him. Last year, he had received an e-mail notice that his office in the department’s headquarters would need to be vacated to make room for a new research and teaching institute. He was able to harness what little political power he still had to reverse that decision of the academic dean, with whom his relationship had frayed since his failed attempt to thwart the University from accepting a sizeable donation from a convicted felon.
One obvious message came from his deteriorating course assignments. Lately, he was assigned to teach courses that were typically assigned to junior faculty, and at times of the day that were not particularly pleasant, such as this current class assignment at 8 a.m. on a Friday. Eventually, he was not assigned to teach much at all. Although this freed him to pursue more opportunities for his research, he knew that his raison d’être was teaching. Most of his research, he knew, would never be communicated to those who could use it to make the world better in any way. Rather, it would be published in academic journals that hardly anyone, even his colleagues, would even open, if only to see whose articles got published. When he had an article published in one of these journals, he could count on kudos being offered by his friends in the department and in his field. But he was well aware that hardly anyone actually read the articles, not that it would have changed any behavior in the world if anyone had read them.
At first, he fought against the pressure to retire. Last year, with resignation, he recognized that it was an uphill battle to continue to resist, and that the joy of teaching was dampened by the frustrations of dealing with an administration that he felt was openly hostile to serving the educational needs of students, making their own needs paramount. And the students seemed more interested in partying than learning.
Students today expected getting an “A” simply for showing up, he lamented. The grade inflation in recent years induced this attitude to some extent. And no wonder; professors were often judged by their student evaluations, and students who expected to get good grades gave their professors good evaluations. Students had the process of taking the easy way out down to a science; they shared intelligence on Web site databases to find out which professors were “easy.” When he was a student himself, Richards had been more interested in determining which professors were good teachers. The good grades came through hard work. Getting an “A” was an achievement back then. Even then, flunking out was a real fear, even for students who had done well in high school.
Maybe it really is time for me to retire, he thought, entering the classroom. I remember when the business of the University was run by educators whose sole concern was educating its students. Today, if there is an interest in preserving educational standards, it seems more that this is to preserve the value of the University’s “brand name” rather than prepare our students to respond to global challenges. No wonder football has become such a high priority.
Harrison Hall was a completely renovated and retrofitted building of classrooms, wired for the 21st century. Most of the funds for the renovation had been donated by William Jayson Harrison, whose net worth had been estimated at $400 million at the time of his conviction for insider trading violations. He had served his sentence in the federal penitentiary at Allenwood, often considered one of the “country clubs” for federal white collar criminals. There had been serious opposition from some board members and faculty about accepting the $30 million gift from Harrison to fund the classrooms, particularly since it was predicated on the requirement that the Hall bear the donor’s name.
Richards himself, as a member of the Faculty Senate at the time, had argued against accepting the donation. He had pointed out that just as for-profit companies pay for the naming rights of stadiums, there is a tangible value to the donor for doing so. So, at a minimum, if the University wanted to prostitute itself (the very phrase he used) by selling its good name to benefit a convicted felon, the University should consider naming the building after Harrison as a fee for service, and should not issue Harrison a substantiation letter acknowledging that the $30 million was a gratuitous donation and thus eligible for a tax exemption.
As expected, the motion was made to endorse acceptance of the gift and it carried by a large majority. The school needed the money. Although tainted, a dollar was a dollar. From that day on, he had noticed his relationship with his department leadership, most of them 20 years his junior, had begun to fray.
He entered the classroom at exactly 8 a.m. He saw again that most of his class of 16, mostly upperclassmen in his Nonprofit Management Seminar class, had not yet arrived. Most needed three elective credits that could be squeezed into their schedules on Fridays to avoid delaying their graduations, and they were understandably not particularly interested in the topic of the class.
Some, he suspected, had simply blown off the final class. Several years earlier, he had announced that being late to his classes was rude and disruptive, and that the door of his classroom would be locked from the inside when the clock’s second hand hit twelve, the time the class was to start. That policy lasted exactly one week; four students who had been late the following week had jointly complained to the academic dean, and Richards was curtly informed that he should be a bit more accommodating to “customers.”
The school had been on a Total Quality Management kick at that time. In successive years, it had gone through other business fads, including Management by Objectives, Future Search, and Business Process Reengineering. In virtually every case, the “reform” was accompanied by evaluations, surveys, tons of forms to fill out, and, as he had predicted, had resulted in little if any improvement in the efficiency or effectiveness of the University’s programs and activities.
What he thought was the last straw, convincing him to consider his retirement, was a budget department policy that courses would be cancelled if they were not self-supporting. This meant that Richards’ favorite Ph.D. seminar electives would not be held as scheduled, as it was unlikely that the population of Ph.D. students in the small program would support enrollment at the required minimum.
He had tried to organize a protest. If the institution would only offer courses that broke even or made a profit, how could they justify seeking donations? The response from his colleagues was lukewarm at best. No one wanted to rock the boat anymore, certainly not like almost everyone had seemed willing to do in the turbulent sixties when he had arrived on campus. He remembered an anti-war rally in progress on the quad when he had arrived for his interview. Students had briefly occupied the president’s office, demanding an end to the ROTC program on the campus.
In the last ten years, the largest campus protest he remembered was one organized by the student newspaper when the board had approved a tuition hike of 10%.
He took his usual place behind a small lectern and looked over his class, its ranks depleted even more than its typical 75% attendance rate. When he had been an undergraduate, he had attended classes wearing a tie and jacket. Today, anything more than shorts and a T-shirt would be considered formalwear. The young women pretended to be oblivious to the effect their low-cut halter tops were having on their male colleagues, but likely were well aware. He, himself, pretended not to notice.
Students from all social classes sported spiked haircuts. Pink dyed hair. Nose rings. Fingernails looking more like talons with designs on them. And tattoos!
Students came to class with laptops, iPods, Blackberries, and other electronic gadgets that had been out of a science fiction comic book at the time he had been an undergraduate and now were de rigueur for almost everyone. All he had taken to class as a student was a book, a notebook to take notes, a pencil, and an empty, open mind, which he expected the professor to fill with wisdom. Today’s student demanded two hours of entertainment and an opportunity to chat.
Professor Richards looked up, smiled as warmly as he could muster, and began the class.
“Good morning, everyone. This is the last class of summer term, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I’d like to begin by going back to basics and discussing what makes an organization a nonprofit, what makes it a charity, and what is the difference between these two, and how nonprofit organizations differ from other organizations in government and the business sector.”
His eyes met Roger, his best student, perhaps the only one who took the class seriously, who studied, and who he thought might have actually paid attention to his lectures. “Roger, let’s begin with you. Why is Tidwell University considered a nonprofit, charitable institution?”
“Well, none of the excess revenue over expenses inures to the benefit of the trustees, and Tidwell offers scholarships to the needy.”
“That’s a good start. Now, let’s assume that you are paying the full cost of your education, and something happens, so your parents no longer can pay your tuition. Should we assume that Tidwell will give you a discount of some kind, or treat you like any other for-profit business? What I mean is, will you be given a break based on your ability to pay, or will you be thrown out on your posterior, and escorted from the classroom if you expect Tidwell to act like a charity?”
“Thrown out on your ass, obviously,” came a response from a possibly anorexic young woman with a nose ring and black lipstick, sitting in the back row.
“Now, look around this campus. It is about five times as large as it was when I first started working here 40 years ago. The annual budget of Tidwell University is perhaps $1 billion annually, in round numbers. The income Tidwell receives from its $12 billion endowment is more than that, because it has hired staff who invest its money in all sorts of business enterprises and securities. One could argue that the main business of the Tidwell Corporation is to generate wealth from its investments, and that education is simply a side business. So, if you accept that, why does Tidwell deserve to be tax-exempt?”
“Don’t foundations have to distribute 5% of their assets annually?”
“No, this federal requirement doesn’t apply to educational institutions, and even if it did, the 5% rule includes reasonable administrative expenses.
“Now, how many of you think Tidwell pays any property taxes? If Tidwell pays some of its endowment fund managers seven-figure incomes—certainly more than our university president earns—you might argue that it values this side of the ‘business’ more than education. So, how can it justify receiving a property tax exemption that by any estimate has a value more than the amount of scholarships Tidwell provides to needy students? Remember, we have already agreed that if you can’t pay your tuition, you are barred from attending classes and are forcibly ejected from the campus, using our taxpayer-subsidized campus security force if necessary.”
He didn’t wait for any answers.
“And it is not like students know what they are getting into when they start here freshman year. Tuition was just $5,000 when I started teaching here; each year it increased by about twice the CPI. What other business can get away with offering a product to its customers without knowing in advance what the price is going to be, and having that product virtually worthless unless you pay up in full and graduate?
“What is the value of a four-year university education at Tidwell University if you take being awarded a diploma out of the calculation? Put another way, how much would you be willing to pay for it? And let’s assume you could agree to have a four-year degree from Tidwell with the proviso that at the end of the four years, you would have your diploma, but everything you learned would be wiped clean from your memory? That is, you have the legitimate credential but not the learning, skills, or knowledge?”
Unlike in other class sessions, he saw evidence that his students were beginning to respond to his questions. At least they appeared to be shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
“Without having to go to school, take tests?”
“Without the partying and Bowl Games?”
“I would probably pay more for that than what the current tuition is!”
“Now, what if I told you a little secret about how Tidwell is run. This year, Tidwell’s budget office sent a memo to all of the academic deans informing them of a new policy stating that each class we offer, with limited exceptions, needs to generate at least as much in revenue as its expenses. In other words, if a class has enrollment that is too low to generate a break-even point for the course, it will be cancelled. This, of course, is why this course was scheduled originally for spring term and is being offered in the summer—in addition to the fact that Tidwell pays professors less for teaching summer courses than for fall or spring courses. What are some of the unintended consequences of this?”
“Well, for one thing, students who need courses to graduate might not find the course offerings they need.”
“How about, how do you justify asking alumni to donate—with the implication that their donations are subsidizing the education of students, when by definition, there is no longer a need for subsidization?”
“Is this why my class in strategic planning last term was taught by an adjunct faculty member?”
“Actually like, you know, one of my classes was taught by a master’s graduate student. I bet he was barely paid at all. There were 30 students in the class, and we each were paying $600 per credit hour, or $1,800 for the class. I would expect that would generate some net income. Let’s see, $1,800 times 30….”
“But you are forgetting that for every class like those, there are full professors earning six figures who might only be teaching a class or two each term, and who are instead getting paid out of your tuition money to do research. Research is an important part of teaching institutions such as Tidwell University. And there are costs, such as when the University pays the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars to me to do research rather than teach, I send this research to an academic journal, which then publishes it—and charges the University to buy a subscription to that publication, and charges again for the right to make copies.
“Believe it or not, I get a notice from the journal telling me when my article appears that I have the right to purchase copies of my article. Once in a while, the journal offers me a small discount!”
“Are you making this up?”
Something about the story he was telling about research triggered a deluge of more stories, which he began nonstop. He could hardly focus on the class in front of him. Forty years of frustrations came out like a flood, induced by the ambivalence of emotions he felt upon reflecting that this was likely to be his final class. He couldn’t help himself. For the next 90 minutes, Dr. Richards launched a monologue and shared with his class why he thought the education system was a failure, and why Tidwell University was in need of reform if it wanted to break the culture.
Why are professors usually such bad teachers? Because getting one’s Ph.D. doesn’t require any training on how to teach. I am certified to teach Ph.D. students, but I can’t teach seventh grade in the Tidwell school district, because I don’t have the certification required to do so…
When I first started here, there was virtually no crime. Ten years ago, the University saw the need to construct a building to house the expanded security department, which monitored the campus inside and out using a sophisticated video camera system. The institution now had an entire police force that was as large, and as well-trained, as that of the town of Tidwell itself. Four patrol cars are in the fleet. Each year, the security department puts in a request to purchase several AR-15 automatic assault rifles—the civilian version of the M-16—although the administration routinely denies funding for these—but it is only a matter of time before this request gets approved, now that college campuses have been victimized by mass shootings.
Did you know that you have the right to see reports of crimes on the Tidwell campus? The Congress enacted the Student Right-To-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990. The law was further amended in 1998 to require most institutions of higher learning, including Tidwell, to keep a public crime log, and to impose sanctions against institutions that fail to accurately disclose crime on campus. This is one more example of how government regulates nonprofit organizations differently from business organizations. Before the federal mandate, Tidwell was quite protective about keeping its crime incidents to itself, so as not to blemish the institution’s reputation. I remember how many eyes were opened when the first report of crime on campus was made public, and the internal debate that had preceded publication of the report on how to sanitize it as much as possible.
He railed against the tenure system, which he suggested protects the mediocre. He criticized the disconnect between research and practice. He pointed out his view that tuition was higher because senior faculty members were being paid six-figure salaries for having a minimal teaching load, and the school was top-heavy with assistant deans each receiving high salaries and lucrative benefits who did the work previously performed by deans.
No subject about his experience at Tidwell was taboo.
...which raises another, related issue. Probably scores of faculty members have been involved in dealing with cover-ups involving alleged cases of sexual harassment at Tidwell, which in decades past had typically resulted in the victim quietly being forced to leave the University and little or no sanctions imposed on the perpetrator. Federal laws have been enacted to apply protections against sexual harassment on all workplaces, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and on educational institutions receiving federal subsidies, such as Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972. These laws give students legal ammunition to fight professors who thought of their students as potential members of their own private harem. This is another example of government regulation directed at nonprofits...
He noticed several students peering down at their watches. It was 9:50, time for the class to be dismissed. Dr. Richards had just been getting warmed up. There was so much more to tell these poor souls who were trapped by the system.
“As some of you know, this is my last class before I retire. I have enjoyed teaching, and I hope that I have made a positive impact on the lives of my students. I didn’t become a millionaire teaching. I did accomplish some things, and I have enjoyed it. So, I can only say ‘farewell’ and hope you learned something useful here, and will put to good use what you learned in this nonprofit management seminar. If you haven’t provided it yet, please don’t forget to turn in your final paper to me now or e-mail it to me by close of business today. Class dismissed.”
The students gave him a standing ovation, as was customary at the conclusion of the last class of a course. He waited in the room until every student had left. Then he laid his head down on the desk, tears streaming down his face.
Two students left the classroom together, their arms draped around each other’s backs. One male with spiked bleached hair and one female. Both were wearing earrings. His hand was buried in the back pocket of her jeans.
“Bit of a pompous, self centered jerk, don’t you think?”
“I’ve had worse. At least he didn’t give us a final exam. Gotta say, his two-hour rant for the entire last class was a bit over the top. How did you stand it?”
“I spent most of it playing Free Cell on my iPhone, and then I got bored, so I spent the rest of the time writing rude messages on my friends’ Facebook walls. I know it’s only 10, but let’s go back to my dorm room and get wasted.”
Roger, the professor’s best student, went to the library to return some books. After he had done so, he sat in a corral and checked to see if anyone had posted any responses to his blog, which he had written and posted during Richards’ class. Roger had dutifully chronicled the professor’s entire rant in detail. Should definitely get some comments on this one, he anticipated. He was disappointed to find no responses yet, but the day was young. And, he was delighted by an @reply on Twitter, responding to his tweet about his new blog post. It read: im a reporter for the Wash Post. Luvd yr blog today. Doing an article on ed reform. Pls call me. 202-334-7300202-334-7300 steve reedman
1. Review the public crime reports submitted by your campus’s security department. Is anything surprising to you? What might be some of the reasons colleges and universities resisted the regulation to make these reports public? What might have been some of the reasons why the Congress enacted it over their objections?
2. Should donors to charities that condition their donation on naming a building after them be entitled to a tax-deduction?
3. What are the pros and cons of a charity accepting a donation from a convicted felon?
4. Why should Tidwell University be exempt from local property taxes? How much community benefit should institutions be providing before they are deemed to be eligible for such an exemption?
5. What are some of the unique aspects of nonprofit universities that make them different from other charities?
6. What are some of the unique aspects of nonprofit universities that make them different from for-profit or government institutions of higher learning?
7. Professor Richards remembers the days when students expressed their advocacy by holding rallies on campus. Discuss how social media such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have given students new tools to coordinate their efforts when they seek change. How has social media changed the educational culture? How might it change in the future as a result of these new tools?
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