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Cal U & the 'edifice complex'

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

For over 40 years of university teaching, I would begin each new term with an anecdote: A father gets his daughter established in her dormitory room and just before he leaves, he admonishes her. “While you're here I don't want you getting any ideas.”

If the university is any good at all, the faculty will fill her mind with ideas of all kinds, open up a wider world than she has ever known and influence the rest of her life. She is now immersed in a culture and experience unlikely to be repeated. She should have daily contact with the best and brightest minds of our society, people whose lives are their work, as once described by our famous playwright August Wilson on “60 Minutes.” When asked which comes first, his art or his life and family, he replied without hesitation, “My art always comes first.”

A university is its faculty, a community of scholars dedicated to knowledge and understanding. All others at the university have the single goal of supporting, nurturing and protecting those scholars. In this unique setting, the faculty may ask one of its own to “reluctantly” take on the responsibility of managing the university. That individual must represent what the university is all about, sharing with the young and with society knowledge and wisdom.

This is being lost at California University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, and it's a threat everywhere in higher education. Too often higher education has become simply a four-year extension of high school.

When I returned to Pennsylvania to teach at Cal U, I had no real expectation of what I would find. I was surprised at how many true scholars were there — poets, writers, dedicated scientists and President John Pierce Watkins, who was a perfect example of a scholar president. There was a vibrant culture of arts and scholarship.

When Angelo Armenti was appointed president, I was at first impressed with his energy, dedication and vision and I supported him. It was an exciting time, and I believed we needed to move forward.

The culture I had admired changed very rapidly. A number of professors were fired over grades and other academic problems, and clearly the power shifted from the faculty to the administration. Positions that had once required extensive searches by committees now were simply filled by appointment, often with unqualified people selected because they were Armenti's loyal supporters.

Senior faculty resigned or retired as soon as possible. There were several of us who questioned how we could afford all the many new buildings while budgets were cut, tuition and fees were increased, more adjunct faculty were hired and some programs were threatened. Our mostly working-class students were struggling not only with increasing debt but with simply affording gas for their cars.

Well, of course, we now know that the university could not afford all those buildings. It was all glitz and show. At Penn State, the problem was a sports program; at Cal U, it was a severe case of the “edifice complex.”

The real loss may be to a nation that has taken such pride in the quality of its higher-education system and is now witnessing its decline.

David N. Campbell, retired from California University of Pennsylvania, lives in Monroeville.

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