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Talking Truth to Power

Presented at the ILR 50th Anniversary Symposium
Academy of Management
August 7, 1995 Hyatt Regency Hotel
Vancouver BC
By Jonathon D. Levy, Assistant Dean
Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations

There is a quiet restaurant on North Capitol Street in Washington just a stone's throw from the Senate offices called "Power's Court." It is always clubby and dark and cool inside, even when the midday sun otherwise bakes the District. It is one of those special places in Washington where powerful members and senior staff meet with influential Hill denizens to court each others' power. More national policy is made over lunch at Power's Court in one week than we can trace in the aggregate to all of the university campuses in the country over the course of an entire congressional session. Nobody goes there for the food.

That is probably no great surprise to anyone in this room. We aren't often called by our congressional or state or provincial representatives seeking our advice on a measure pending on the floor. We offer testimony at various hearings from time to time, and will on rare occasions even see some of what we know included in a committee report. But we are well-aware of the chasm that exists between that which is political and that which is academic. Indeed, in the popular jargon, the phrase "it's academic" is synonymous with "not relevant." And yet, for many years the vital role played by our universities was respected by our governments, even when they tossed an occasional barb in our direction for galloping esotericism. On the whole, the underlying notions that supported the existence of and investment in strong universities went unexamined and unchallenged.

Things are now very different. We're largely out of the loop. The gap between the public legislator and the public educator is becoming a canyon, a chasm whose walls are moving apart at an ever-increasing rate. That should be very important to us, because our destiny is controlled far more by the lawmakers than theirs is by us. When the budget folks look at us these days, they no longer see a sacred cow; what they see is a tasty steak dinner.

Our federal and state legislatures are themselves being transformed by successive waves of voter dissatisfaction. In the wake of the "throw the bums out" election of '94, we are beginning to see a more contentious, anti-intellectual, anti-elitist public sentiment increasingly being championed by the legislators themselves. Virtually overnight and without dialogue, the value of an elite university education has been devalued as a matter of public policy.

The lion's share of public funding for post-secondary education in the United States has already been targeted at the non-baccalaureate level, primarily for occupational training and retraining. Higher education at the Bachelor's level and above is, increasingly, viewed as a frill, at least in terms of public priorities.

How did this shift come about? Thirty years ago the universities were seen as the great hope of America. We were in the midst of a cold war, perched on the brink of global thermonuclear devastation. Our universities were in the front lines of that cold war, challenging the Russians for technological superiority. At the same time, on the domestic front a renewed emphasis on social reform elevated the social sciences to a new position of prominence. In a time of unchallenged economic superiority, public resources flowed almost unchecked into the academy, and higher education thrived in a resource-rich environment. The only competition we faced was among ourselves.

Today, the cold war is over, the Great Society is under attack from every degree of the political spectrum, the U.S. has lost its economic advantage, and the percentage of public resources allocated to higher education is shrinking at an alarming rate.

Federal and state lawmakers have discovered a popular vein of anti-elitism, fed by an unending notion of economic uncertainty. In lock step many legislatures have begun the hunt for loose fat and soft underbellies. My belief is that we are not witnessing just another cycle of public scrutiny. For a number of reasons that I will touch upon, it goes to the core of what we are this time.

Our greatest strength has become a liability. When the legislatures attack us, it is for them a way of distancing themselves from the taint of aristocracy. What we call excellence, they now call elitism. Preeminence has, in the public mind, been transposed into extravagance. Legislators are discovering that higher education is far more vulnerable than it is venerable. In a time of limited public resources, excellence has become excess. Criticism of higher education places the critic apart from the public perception of waste and irrelevance in our educational and political institutions. The guy who aims the spotlight is rarely in it.

In California, prison guards are paid more than university faculty with the same number of years' tenure. A public poll conducted by the State University found overwhelming support for that spread. When I mentioned that study to a highly placed Cornell graduate, his reply was "Well, of course. The prison guards' job is more dangerous." And this is from an alum who is a major donor! Are we missing something here? Let me present just a few benchmarks of where I think we are in the minds of the legislators, and then I'll say a few words about what I think we need to do about it.

This is last month's issue of "Governing" magazine, perhaps the most widely read publication for those in state government. Its cover story is titled, "Hard Questions for Higher Education." The report inside is chilling. Let me read you a few excerpts:

Wayne Jones feels confident he knows as well as anyone what ails higher education in Ohio. For one thing, compared with most of his legislative colleagues, he hasn't been out of it that long. It was just 12 years ago, at age 29, that he graduated from the University of Akron.

It was an innocuous 1993 press release from his alma mater that really set Jones off. The release heralded a lucrative research grant landed by a University of Akron professor. That fact in itself was worthy of commendation. The object of the research, Jones felt, was not.

The award to study medieval Italian marble formations, in his view, symbolized much of what was wrong with the state of public higher education. It was yet another example of how far the priorities of academe had veered away from those of the taxpayers. It was time spent on research of dubious value to Ohio's economy, or the needs of the university's undergraduates. So Jones decided to take some symbolic action of his own. He introduced a measure aimed at forcing professors back into the classroom.

And largely because he was education finance chairman at the time, his measure made it through the legislative process and became law. As a result, professors at Ohio's state-supported institutions of higher learning must spent 10 percent more time in the classroom teaching undergraduates than they did in 1990. "It really wasn't done to bring the whip and chain to the college professors," Jones insists. "It was to send a message to the higher education community that we're watching."

Behind the questioning lurks what some legislators see as the ultimate weapon: performance-based funding of higher education. Several states are already taking tentative steps toward rewarding and penalizing public universities on the basis of predetermined goals or accountability measures. How far the performance movement will ultimately go is open to considerable doubt. But it stands as a symbol of the pressure that these institutions are suddenly under to explain what kind of return taxpayers are getting for their money.

In Colorado last year, yet another ill-fated press release announced that a vice chancellor at the state university's Colorado Springs campus was granted a leave to "read Aristotle and Shakespeare and reactivate my sense of scholarship." While the leave in question did not seem far-fetched to the university officials who approved it, the chairman of the legislature's joint budget committee failed to see the Logic. He pushed through legislation abolishing administrative sabbaticals and tightening oversight of faculty leaves.

Is the handwriting on the walls? Are the Huns at the gates? No. They're already past the gates, and they're headed for the big house on the hill!

Something very important is going to happen starting in 1997, something you haven't read about yet. The Congress is going to take two years to completely rewrite the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. This is the big one, the one Congress considers only once every five years. It determines what kind of programs can be funded with any federal funds, and what constraints are attached to that funding. Now, if you have been following what the Family Values Coalition has had to say about other social institutions, what do you think they are going to say about higher education?

The Congress has already begun dismantling the foundations of entitlement upon which the modern state has been built. The outcome of the '96 presidential elections may determine how fast and with how much relish they will go after higher ed, but not "whether." That die is cast. The word "accountability" has been a popular one the past two years, and anyone who still thinks that there will not be significant new demands for university accountability is, in my opinion, one of the better examples of the triumph of hope over experience.

In 1775, Patrick Henry said: "It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut out eyes against a painful truth." This truth we know all too well. What is less well-known is what a graduate of the ILR School, now one of the top CEOs in the country, once told me: "When you have an ugly problem, the only thing to do it walk right up to it, wrap your arms around it and give it a hug. Only when you get to know it well can you begin to solve it." I humbly suggest that higher education has had no greater threat to its institutional momentum than exists now on the legislative horizon. It is time to start hugging the problem.

There will be no middle ground. The coming debate, in the Congress and in your state legislative chambers, will be like meeting a tiger in the jungle: either you are going to get severely mauled, or you will climb up on its back and ride. We cannot ignore the growing tide. The private sector is full of out-of-work executives who shut their eyes to the fact that "reengineering" meant "them."

Well, what can we do about it? I don't have all the answers, but I believe I have some of the answers. A little-known American philosopher named Josiah Royce put it this way: "A man who knows what a tiger is, is a man who knows what to do in the presence of a tiger."

We must do what we do best: investigate, gain understanding, and educate. While many of our legislators are newly-elected, and eschew alliances of the past, they are open to new ideas if presented in a cooperative and unselfish context. We can and should seek them out and form alliances with them. We have the capability of providing technical assistance, issue briefings, policy analysis, and access to the scholarly networks of the academy, if we choose to do that.

New distance learning technologies are now available to allow the academy to reach beyond its hallowed walls and into the communities where their expertise is needed most. In fact, we can now appear in the hearing rooms and offices of the legislature to provide testimony and objective research findings with the flick of a switch. We in higher education can become an active partner, a helpful partner, of those who would dismantle or significantly alter much of what we hold to be important.

Video-teleconferencing and Web technology can put each state's university assets at the fingertips of the lawmakers in an active partnership designed to address pressing social problems. We can open our classrooms for public hearings and link the legislative leaders to their constituencies. When the lawmakers tackle welfare reform, we can instantly transport them into the classroom while our top faculty debate various alternative approaches to the problem. We can convene the assembly and write the agenda instead of just reacting from afar.

We can, in fact, assume the leadership role in the debate, but a substantial amount of risk-taking is involved, which is why most of us have never seen the inside of a legislative chamber. Doesn't matter. The world is a different place from the halcyon days of the medieval walled city, and there is no acceptable alternative. We have to get out there and provide real and meaningful assistance to the political leadership.

I have heard "real leadership" defined as "the willingness to talk truth to power." I suspect that's the crux of it. On our campuses today, some of our colleagues fashion themselves still very much behind that stone wall, expecting to always be nurtured within the ivory tower by a grateful society. Some of our administrators are still telling the emperor that his new clothes look positively smashing. But those who can clearly see the future have a responsibility to not only inform their colleagues that the sky is, in fact, falling, but also to take the lead in doing something about it.

We must talk truth to power, both within and outside the walls of our universities. In today's just-in-time world, we are best-positioned to direct attention to the overarching long-range issues that will create the environment for tomorrow's challenges. If we do not stand watch for the future, who will? We must be the risk-takers, seeking out those who would do us the greatest harm, and educate them about the value of the university. We can do this best by example, not rhetoric. We have to be willing to get into the trenches, to stand beside them and see the world as they do. Only then can we hope to have them understand the value of basic research, of academic freedom, of scholarly pursuit.

The new technologies provide an inexpensive means for us to do much of this. Our actions will define a new paradigm for the transmission of knowledge to those unable to join us on our campuses. That new model will not only serve our students and potential students well, it will also serve our own interests well, for it will place us foursquare at the center of the revolution that is going on all around us. The timely and wise utilization of distance learning technologies will not result in the dismantling of the walls that surround the academy, for they will still be needed, but for a new purpose. We will stand on them so we can be seen and heard from a greater distance.

Universities, like the law, in the words of Oliver Wendall Holmes, "must be stable, but cannot stand still." I am not suggesting that we tear down our ivory towers; what I am suggesting is that we open them to the people who built them. It is in our own enlightened self-interest as well as in the long-range interest of our society that we begin to extend the academy to those who would devastate what they have assembled. We must get to know the tiger. When we are truly willing to make their problems our problems, and devote our substantial resources to their solution, then and only then will we find ourselves seated at their table, and they at ours, as active participants in the design of our respective tomorrows.

There is a role for the medieval model in higher education, and it is a noble and important one. But while that model provides stability, it cannot stand still. Every ounce of stability must be balanced by an equal measure of flexibility. Beyond that, for each new technology that we integrate into our instructional and outreach programs, we must be willing to rejuvenate our institutions by putting an end to those programs that are no longer appropriate or relevant to our mission. Only when we have achieved the appropriate balance of stability, flexibility, integration, and rejuvenation, will growth take place.

Recently there was a news story about the monks in upstate New York who bake Monks' Bread. The income derived from baking and selling that bread allows them to continue their centuries-old monastic practices, unchanged by the new world in which they find themselves. I would suggest that model, in one form or another, works for all of us.

I want to end on an upbeat note, and it is that the future can be what we want it to be. The demographics support the timely implementation of these new technologies, as the "baby-boom echo" is about to enter that educational python. The numbers of high school graduates will swell by twenty percent over the next ten years, actually by even more than twenty percent that if some of the educational reforms now being enacted at the K-12 level are successful. At the same time, given current trends, access will be more limited, and we can now begin to plan for the implementation of those outreach technologies that will share our resources with an even larger number of traditional and non-traditional students. There will be plenty of good students to pick from and, increasingly, they will be people of color, they will be poorer, and they will be older than today's students.

Many of our future students will also be non-traditional students: they will hold a full-time job, and they will require education not at one moment in their lives, but at all moments in their lives. They will attend class in the virtual classroom, and they may purchase educational modules from a variety of suppliers. We may begin to serve dual roles, as both suppliers and brokers. We need to begin to address this new paradigm for higher education, one that defines an ongoing relationship with our students, utilizing new technologies to forge dynamic partnerships with students and employers as well as governments and other universities.

It will be up to us whether we rise to that challenge, developing a community of leaders who, when some of them enter the legislature, will return to our campuses and ask, "how can we work together?" If we are successful in reaching out to those students, if we are successful in working hand-in-hand with our legislatures, if we are up to the task of speaking truth to power, then we will ride that tiger into the new millennium.

It remains for us to demonstrate that the real power's court is not a restaurant in Washington at all. Rather, the real court of power resides in our libraries and in our classrooms and in our laboratories and, ultimately, in the minds of those whom we might enlighten...if we choose to do so.

Thank you.