The most distinctive feature of higher education in this country is surely its diversity and extent, and the absence of any single, integrated national control from above. Though the United States offers more educational opportunities to more people than any nation has ever attempted, it has done so without any central plan or governing authority. Given the complexity and sensitivity of the field, the variety of our needs, and the size and divergent interests of different sectors and regions, I feel that this is a good thing, and that we should strive to keep it so.
A mixture of historical accident, denominational drive, and divided state and local jurisdictions has given us a rich, sprawling diversity of institutions and forms of academic governance. Confusing, overlapping, competitive, sometimes wasteful and often redundant, this mixture has provided opportunities for education of great variety for ever increasing numbers; it has encouraged multiple sources of initiative and response to changing needs; it has generated adverse sources of funding; and it has inspired the kinds of dedication and leadership needed to create and sustain institutios of quality. Perhaps most distinctive, it has largely concentrated administrative energies and decision-making authority on the individual campuses where the students are and where the problems emerge (and these two are not necessarily synonymous), rather than at far away centers setting inflexible rules for a national system.
Within the wide range of academic institutions, none has better represented this American pattern than the independent liberal arts college. As a free-standing enterprise, unlike most of its counterparts abroad, it took root and form in the original colonies and states, and can properly be seen as a distinctive American creation. From sturdy beginnings in New England, Virginia and New York it spread with the course of settlement across Pennsylvania, Ohio and the old Northwest, and on into Iowa and the trans-Mississippi West.
Those colleges reflected the aspirations and interests of churches and communities that founded colleges sometimes in the same year they began a town. Enrollments were small and the curriculum limited, but the commitment was deep and lasting.A crucial characteristic of this institution-building has been the control of each college by its own board of trustees, officers and faculty, together determining programs and standards, running admissions and appointing staff-each institution developing, in short, according to its own plans, purposes and resources, and remaining responsible for its own future.
In more recent years the growth in systems and sub-systems of post-secondary education and in the size of their budgets has led to more centralized state planning and control-perhaps necessarily so. But the state level seems a good place for the process of centralization to stop.
The increasing intrusion of federal regulation offers a warning of the pressures that a separate national Department of Education would inevitably set in motion. Given the dynamics of government and the natural ambitions of men, one need not be a hardened conservative to anticipate the drift toward centralized planning and control that would follow, or the ways in which this could undercut the diversity and initiative, and adaptability and responsiveness of the vigorous, flexible, competitive network of private and public institutions, locally governed, that histroy has given us.
Federal funding assistance may be essential in some cases, but we already have experience with how it can be handled to avoid serious loss of institutional autonomy; the GI Bill, the support of science and medical research via the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and library support through the Office of Education are examples. We could develop other models.
But whatever the deficiences of existing educational forms and practices-and they are many-let us resolve them without installing an overarching authority and attendant bureaucracy that will almost inevitably bring remoteness and rigidity in place of the ranging, rambling, resiliency of our present pluralism. In a country as diverse as ours and in a field as sensitive for a free and open society as is higher education, the unintended consequences of centralization could be both regrettable and, once in place, difficult to reverse.
While we strive to preserve our decentralized network of independent institutions and state systems, what should we be doing about the internal governance of colleges and universities? Here again I think there is need to understand and preserve relationships and procedures that have worked fairly well, that provide their own checks and balances, and that have engaged the abilities and support of the seven constituencies on which any independent college or university depends: trustees, faculty and students; parents, alumni and the surrounding community; and the wider world of learning. It is the task of administration to enlist and coordinate the energies and capacities of these seven constituencies and to keep central purposes clear. But of late have we not tended to complkicate that task by confusing the roles and responsibilities of these constituencies, setting up cumbersome procedures that lessen institutional effectiveness?
I recall a comment made in the late 1960s by Edward Levi, then president of the University of Chicago. The real peril, he held, lay not in the physical damage, deplorable as it was, nor in the actual decisions that would emerge from the elaborate new committee structure and participatory procedures-the decisions finally made would probably not be that much worse, or better. The persisting loss, he felt, lay in the absorption of everyone's time and energy in ways apart from the essential business of teaching and learning and sustained research.
I have since heard a great many college administrators and faculty members speak with distress of the amount of time spent in the committee maze or in adversary procedures to which the years of disarray gave rise. That allocation of time and talent does not seem right. Nor does it seem wise or necessary for colleges and universities-as institutions-to have to struggle over every external issue this troubled world presents. Let individuals or groups get involved as they wish, but should we not reflect more carefully on how far the institution should be drawn into conflict or deflected from its own most important purpose? And must we not recognize at what cost it is so deflected?
Obviously, there must be continuous interaction and appropriate degrees of sharing in policy decisions of importance; but these primary roles and responsibilities seem worth reemphasizing. At colleges where contact and exchange are easy and most decisions can be made right on campus, cooperative solutions should be possible without the divisive struggles and horrendous procedural scaffolding sometimes erected. Litigation is not a good way to sustain a collegial spirit.