The times they are a-changing on the college campuses, and don't for a moment believe otherwise. Not merely is higher education subject to all the outside pressures that have been so much in the news recently, most notably the Reagan administration's proposal to reduce student-loan programs and the reports by various influential committees demanding various changes in undergraduate instruction; beyond that, America's colleges and universities are being traumatically affected by large economic and social developments that are completely beyond their control.
This came home to me with something of a jolt last week during a visit to a medium-sized university in the Midwest. It is a publicly supported institution, a second-tier school in a three-tier statewide system at the top of which is the state university, in the middle regional universities, and at the bottom four-year colleges. It began its existence as a normal school, and indeed to considerable measure remains one even now, since the education of prospective schoolteachers remains its principal business. But during the higher-education explosion of the 1960s it took on the name if not the real function of a university; and now, like so many comparable institutions throughout the country, it is learning the hard facts of campus life in the post-'60s era.
The most pervasive of these is the end of the baby boom and the subsequent drop in enrollment. Only a few years ago this school had more than 12,000 students on campus; now that number has fallen to around 9,000. The school has been fortunate in that a number of faculty positions fell vacant in recent years, and its administration had the wisdom not to fill them. Thus it is not stuck with more faculty than it needs, a situation that has forced other colleges in the region into unpleasant confrontations over tenure rights. Even so, though, the enrollment decline and the subsequent revenue losses have made painfully evident that the palmy days of the '60s are ancient history, and history most unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future.
Another characteristic of the education boom that has disappeared is faculty mobility. If there was a recurrent theme to my conversations with teachers at this institution, it was that their individual prospects are far less bright than when they first decided to enter higher education. With the shrink in enrollment has come a brutal change in the job market. The foot soldiers of academia -- the instructors, assistant professors and associate professors -- no longer can expect to move upward by switching from employer to employer, as people do in so many other white-collar occupations, because there are no jobs to which they can jump. The jobs are all taken, and the people who have them are holding on for dear life.
The result is that the younger faculty members who had initially thought that their jobs at this provincial institution would merely be steppingstones to positions at more eminent universities are now resigning themselves to the prospect of spending the rest of their careers here -- and praying that they will get the job security that tenure brings. This is a blessing for their employer, which finds itself with a better faculty than it might otherwise expect to be able to attract, and for their students, who may well walk away from college with a better education than they'd originally bargained for. It is something less than a blessing, though, for the teachers themselves.
Purely by coincidence, all of those with whom I spoke were men, and at least half of them acknowledged that coming to this backwater town -- for that indeed is what it is -- had placed severe strains on their marriages. Their wives are smart, educated women, many of whom gave up good jobs elsewhere in order to accompany their husbands on what they, too, thought would be a brief stop on the career ladder. Now that the stop looks to be permanent, these women are shopping for work -- and finding it hard to come by in a community that doesn't offer much beyond farms, stores and the university.
It's hard not to feel for these people. The end of the education boom is a good and necessary thing because matters boomed all out of proportion, but there's a human cost to the process of shrinkage, and some good, decent people are paying it. The teachers are lucky to have jobs, and quick to tell you how lucky they are, but there's a bitter edge to their words. Many of them are Midwesterners who love their land and want to stay there, but their sights had been set on the bright lights of the region -- on Iowa City or Lincoln, Boulder or Columbia -- rather than on a place that, in the description of a teacher at another provincial school, is "the end of the earth." One especially bright young man with whom I spoke tried mightily to be optimistic about the years that lie ahead of him, but he sounded for all the world as if he were talking not about life but about a life sentence.
People make do with the straws they draw, of course; these teachers -- and their wives -- are no exception. Outside the classroom they organize professional associations, involve themselves in student undertakings and otherwise try to make their days as interesting as possible. Inside the classroom, though, they express frustration over the restraints that are now being placed on curricula. With evident longing they look back to the '60s and '70s, when anything really did go, and teachers could teach whatever they jolly well pleased. Mystery fiction, sci fi, soap operas, gay movies -- you name it, the campus not merely had a place for it but would give students three credits for pretending to learn it.
All that hasn't completely gone, but the reaction against it has set in. The back-to-basics movement and the new emphasis on the core curriculum have forced college teachers back to the nuts and bolts, and many of them are openly unhappy about it. Courses about movies and television are fun; freshman composition courses are work. But in the new dispensation, comp is in, frills are out. This is good for colleges and good for students, and for that matter it is good for teachers, who are forced into an academic discipline that the '60s had taught them they could blithely ignore.
In this instance it's difficult to feel for them; the revolution of the '60s did many terrible things to higher education in the process of doing a handful of good ones, and "innovative" courses often were among them. But even if the changes now taking place are positive and necessary ones, it remains that they are having hard effects on the lives of good people. To watch one's world come to pieces cannot be a happy experience, and we on the outside do well to bear that in mind even as we applaud its disappearance.