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When I read the description of the new Marshall University CEO, I shuddered. I have no knowledge of the gentleman and am only slightly acquainted with Marshall University, but having experienced several universities, both as student and faculty, I see difficulties ahead. Here are some:

The newspaper article made much of the new person’s alumnus status. But universities have evolved, and having had a good Marshall undergraduate experience may not help.

One instructional area undergoing change is remediation. Traditionally remediation was barely tolerated and hardly acknowledged. Students found deficient in English or math were seen as matriculation errors. But public education has been dumbed down a bit and academic achievement motivation is not as high as it had been; indeed, there are now some high school graduates who are reluctant to even leave home. More TLC and attention may be needed to remedy basic academic deficiencies.

Another fast-changing academic area involves virtual learning. COVID has hastened the advent of the virtual classroom. Though drawbacks of ceding in-person learning to the internet are becoming apparent in public education, universities must nevertheless now try to balance virtual learning with lecture attendance policies and on-campus residency requirements.

More traditionally, there has been tension between university instruction delivered by senior professors on the one hand and teaching assistants or adjunct faculty on the other. While transitory instructors are cheaper, the quality of instruction is presumably less.

Student athletes get academic help, but beyond that there can be pressure on professors to lower grading standards. This can result in student athlete graduates with near-worthless degrees; for those who may have suffered injuries but who nevertheless cannot become professional athletes — the vast majority — their best days post-graduation are likely behind them.

With pressure on universities to produce STEM-imbued, immediately employable graduates, core curricula have taken a back seat. But ahistorical semi-literate code-writing geniuses will not, in the long run, enjoy a full intellectual life and may not even be promotable. While some young proto-programmers may not appreciate having to consider art, philosophy, anthropology, or psychology, without these, they may come to feel a bit lost in their middle years.

Some readers may be saying: “Give the new guy a chance.” But the point is that the new guy may well produce a reborn hollow “university” that passes muster: a perhaps lamentable freshman flunkout rate but no problem thereafter; more graduates per occupied dorm room (thanks to virtual learning); graduates set for entry-level high tech jobs (but perhaps not quite so happy or productive in their later years), and an alumni-pleasing set of winning athletic teams.

The donor community composed mostly of alums and large corporate potential employers might be satisfied. But those of us who feel a university is supposed to be a variegated community with some continuity — one that is somewhat isolated from short-term profit considerations — would not be. Will at least some graduates decide to join the Peace Corps or bicycle across the U.S.A. or become effective rural school teachers? Will some faculty be noted — and perhaps even celebrated — for their passion and erudition, even if their academic field is strictly “academic”?

Upon graduation I had three different U.S. Air Force jobs in four places: assistant club officer (North Carolina, Philippines), equipment management officer (Thailand) and food service officer (Mississippi). After the Air Force and graduate school there were community college teaching (Florida), bulk commodities wholesaling (Haiti) and school district business manager (Pennsylvania).

A specialized undergraduate experience would not have helped me be more productive or consoled me in lonely times. I prize today my variegated undergrad classes, often taught by senior profs. My wish for future Marshall grads: May you also enjoy a rich and authentic university experience.

John D. Palmer, Ph.D., M.B.A., M.A., B.A., has taught at James Madison University, the University of Charleston and Penn State. Much of his education was paid for by the GI Bill. He is a Huntington resident.

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