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Living on Tulsa Time I: Down from the Ivory Tower


An old college chum sent me an article called “Storm Clouds over Tulsa," written by Jacob Howland at the end of April 2019. It got me thinking about the sad state of higher education in America, my own recent experience, and what the future might hold. As an old rock and roll fan, I couldn’t resist calling this blog “Living on Tulsa Time,” after the old Don Williams song, which Sheryl Crowe did with Eric Clapton, now an old guy hosting his Crossroads festival; Clapton also did it back as a youth doing his own slide guitar (though Jerry Douglas was amazing at Crossroads), when most of his band was from Tulsa, and I wasn’t long out of college myself.

Howland’s article focuses on the University of Tulsa, where a new administration “in a particularly crude and short-sighted manner,” has turned a “once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda.” The story is not just about what is happening at Tulsa, but about the “perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy: the confident ignorance of administrators, the infantilization of students, the policing of faculty, the replacement of thinking with ideological jargon, and the corporatization of education.” As addressed in my March blogs about the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men, I think this has even infected at least one professional association. My old student, the one now in Tulsa, is well aware of what is happening in her own back yard, but the story of what is going on at her alma mater, a “small liberal arts college in the rural area of a large Northeastern state,” so perfectly parallels it, that it may provide another point on the regression line.

I have retired from over 30 years of college teaching and have happily now wandered beyond the bucolic groves of academe, I have friends still there. They are bailing water from what may very well be a sinking ship, which hasn’t “made class” for too many years, and from which, as one of those remaining colleagues told me: “All the good minds have left.” They were never more than lower tier, their endowment probably wouldn’t cover more than a few months of their budget, and their inclusion of liberal arts has always been justified by its putative value to the more numerous “applied” majors, like business and education. So, it may never have been far removed from the little religious teacher’s college it was historically. It may represent an example case from the “half of all American colleges and universities [that] will go bankrupt in the next ten to 15 years.” Little schools like this one, its sticker price long exceeding its comparative value, will be among the first to go. Unlike Tulsa, its Division III athletic programs, especially absent American football (we had what the rest of the world calls “football,” that game played with your feet that Americans call “soccer”) were not as over funded as at Tulsa. But I retired at a time that, despite not making class for years, flat-lining faculty salaries, and implementing a hiring freeze, the administration and the board had gone ahead with a major fundraising campaign, to build a new “Sports and Wellness Center,” now under construction.

Like Tulsa, in its heyday, my little liberal arts college also managed to recruit scholars from Berkeley, Chicago, and Yale, and a colleagues did critique each other’s work, audit each other’s courses, and hosted lectures on fascinating intellectual subjects. Faculty reading groups were often provided with focus books on the institution’s dime (even up to and including The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University, until a somewhat thick administration figured out that we were applying it to them). In the Core program implemented in the 90’s, there was a far-reaching Capstone course for juniors and seniors, requiring multi-disciplinary work exploring the relationship between “individuality and community” from cells and organisms, brains and minds, and even how personhood might get defined differently in different cultures and historical eras (I know, since I wrote the proposal). We even had an honorarium-funded faculty summer seminar on the recommended readings, bringing in their scholarly authors for discussions and long dinners, who were booked for campus-wide presentation during the school year. Sadly, that was twenty years ago, and first the students and then even the faculty started to think of it as a sociology course on “the individual and the community” as if the relationship between them was a foregone conclusion. It shrank to an honors-only seminar and was then replaced by an administrative course on “leadership.” The era of the Junior-Senior Colloquium was the heyday of our college. I taught one of these for a decade, won awards, and it made my time in front of a classroom the métier of my professional life, and a personal joy.

The college never managed to do much to increase the endowment, so we retained “tuition based” funding, borrowed from the maintenance budget until we couldn’t, and raised our student numbers to stay ahead of the curve, but then couldn’t sustain that practice. Contributions to retirement were reduced. We did a decent job funding a new library in the early 90’s, but then borrowed heavily for a new student center. Things didn’t really get ragged until a decade or so into the new millennium. A super-provost we hired as president didn’t do the long-term building of relationships in a maturing alumni base. Our logo got changed from a lamp representing enlightenment to a big capital letter, since, with three girls for every guy, we needed to appear more masculine, and one ex-industry instructor built a physics and engineering program from the bottom up. A safe rural school with a lot of more traditionally female majors didn’t help.

Ours was one of those schools about which it was joked not that long ago, coeds came to get their “M.R.S degree,” but even with more enlightened and feminist cohorts, couples often tended, as much for family economic reasons, to follow a husband’s career, so I suspect a lot of donations to higher education went to husbands’ colleges. With the gender ratio we had, there was also, sadly, a certain number of female students who would tolerate more poor treatment than they should, even when our most macho sports were Division III soccer and later lacrosse, for which no one was paying athletes to play, and we had no Greek system, aside from gender-segregated housing sustained long past the research that showed how and why that was a bad idea. Our big "diversity plan," based on ideas that any competent social scientist knew were flawed, also backfired and produced some ugly incidents on campus. Not before the “loyal opposition” faculty got called “racist” for having research-based reasons why the plan would fail, its commendable goals notwithstanding.

The real problem, and one faced almost everywhere was, for us, not athletics, but a “growth” model of finances that required continual tuition raises, largely justified by “staff salaries,” though the real increase here, as almost everywhere, was a 300% increase in the salaries and numbers of administrators and their staffs. Student services, and student service training meant a constant barrage of new student initiatives, new “centers” for this and that, while faculty numbers and salaries changed glacially, if at all. An administrator says he or she has too much work, and we suddenly have new staff or new “deanlets,” whereas faculty, who have infinite time, can justify administrators’ monthly reports by being asked to do more and more. I’m not sure when our Presidents started earning salaries which would have paid for five or six mid-range faculty positions, not even counting expense accounts and meetings of the Board in exotic places. The Trustee sponsored tradition of a faculty dinner dance each Fall vanished over a decade ago, and even our small salary increases were often offset by increased medical withholding. Department chairs, at least all but a few, over the course of a decade, turned from lighting rods and buffers between administrators and faculty into magnifiers of administrative initiatives, justified by “college-level concerns.” Don’t even get me started on the faculty policing by “assessment” policies, requiring empirical support for teaching practices, without any real justification of those policies and procedures themselves. Academic freedom was left to what one said in class, though rules about syllabi, taken as contractual documents with students, were increasingly governed by administrative decree. When finally called to task about violations of procedure, administrators would sometimes back down, only to change the procedures six months later.

“Strategic plans” developed with thousands of hours of faculty contributions were “taken under advisement” while administrators asserted what they chose, including rewriting institutional history to suit their goals, and then requiring endless documentation for how any faculty initiative met the plan. I brought in an alumnus who had reached a high level of professional success to speak to a student club, so thought I was doing a favor to “college relations” by suggesting that they might cover it. I was required to then justify this coverage according to the strategic plan, met with a “college relations” administrator, and then saw, to my dismay, that the only coverage was a photographer at the meeting, whose pictures no one ever saw, and a couple of column inches in the suburban weekly of the speaker’s residential community.

By a decade or so into the millennium, what one said in class was academically free only to the extent that it did not raise any “controversial issues outside of the subject matter of the discipline,” something difficult to adjudicate, especially in the social sciences, but ultimately decided by administrators with rather limited understanding of the discipline itself. This meant, in practice, anything that any students complained made them uncomfortable, or even complained that it might make some minority uncomfortable even if there was no evidence, and no complaints (or even the reverse) from actual members of that minority.

I will give several concrete examples, but I have since heard dozens of these, from colleagues all over the country. I remember, in the context of a Psych 105 lecture on Freud’s anal stage, when I had the insight that perhaps many people’s harsh reactions to homosexuality could simply have been a disgust response to the thought of “what male homosexuals do for pleasure.” Indeed, there is research that shows that subjects on the more conservative end of the political spectrum, tend to have stronger disgust responses. In what I thought was a sufficiently outrageous and over-acted way, I enacted how an extreme homophobe might respond. Several of my gay student friends had told me it was hilarious. The anonymous complaint, for which I was required to explain myself in writing, was not that anyone was offended, but that this “might be offensive” to gay people. One wondered whose prejudices and misconceptions were being aired here. Such decisions were, of course, administrative ones, often becoming “college concerns” long after even the students complaining had either withdrawn their complaints or had them obviated by the minorities themselves.When my dean later suggested that I might seek out a senior colleague in consultation, I refused to do so. His response was that they would then have to interview members of my class. I told him to go ahead. The complaint was “adjudged unfounded.”

I was a full Professor with decades of teaching experience and a senior merit award under his belt. But instead of giving me the benefit of the doubt and rejecting such an anonymous complaint on prima facie grounds, I was put through a humiliating “investigation” which left a cloud over me for months. Despite the judgment, I was further overseen for several years by virtue of “ongoing concerns,” primarily, as far as I could tell, that I was guilty of being accused. Guilt by accusation has become practically pro forma. The only such concern expressed by my then-Dean, was that I might better “frame” non-literal discourse. The Dean, by the way, was the one who said he would “fall on his sword for the liberal arts.” He is no longer Dean of Faculty.

I did add a “Trigger Warning Policy” to my subsequent course syllabi, to wit:

"It is not my goal in this course to serve you. Our college motto “Educate for Service” is about developing the knowledge and base of skills and habits of thought to help you flourish, for you to better serve the people around you and your culture at large. To that end, my goal is to challenge you, to get you to think differently and more deeply about the subject matter of this course, and about life in general. It is my job, at least occasionally, to make you uncomfortable. So I do not consider “enjoyable” to be the summit of praise nor “offensive” a term of repugnance. To educate you, to lead you out of your prior understandings I need to earn your trust. You need to feel that we are in this together, that we can all be free to take some risks. I hope I will sometimes surprise, even shock or offend you. I do that because I have faith that you and I are up to the challenge, and it is in your interest.

"However, I am also aware that some individuals, because of different traumas or assaults on their psychological integrity, may have some issues that may be raised by some aspects of the subject matter, for which issues of sexuality or violence are in fact quite relevant. I would prefer that you confront such issues, but we are all human, so if there are particular sensitivities you have for which that is not yet possible, please let me know in advance, so I can make the effort to warn you. While I will not censure the class, you may want to step out, at no penalty whatsoever to your grade or my judgement of you. Also be aware that I can sometimes use a wide range of nonliteral tropes, including metaphor, irony, and even sarcasm in order to increase the dramatic impact of material which I think is important. I will make every effort to explicitly frame such uses but would ask your forbearance in understanding when I do not."

ENROLLMENT IN THIS COURSE IMPLIES UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE OF COURSE POLICIES

As a second example, in a course covering the psychology of emotion, which included the above “trigger warning policy,” candid remarks on the role of sexuality in emotional life resulted in student offense, so I was subjected to a Title IX investigation for "sexual harassment." “How many students complained,” I asked. “Why do you want to know that?” “Because if it was very many, I might as well throw in the towel as this has been part and parcel of my teaching repertoire for 30 years.” I was simply told “more than one.” During the inquisition (it would be hard to call it anything else) over a list of remarks made in class, in pursuit of the subject matter, to no one in particular. At no point was I provided with any actual evidence, nor any opportunity to cross-examine or even counter-argue. The standard for “sexual harassment” on college campuses is now no longer “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or even “beyond a reasonable person’s expectations,” or even “beyond a reasonable woman’s expectations,” but, apparently, beyond anyone’s expectations.” Or, in fairness, perhaps, “beyond more than one person’s expectations.” In addition to the absence of due process, there are no rules of evidence and virtually anything is fair game, down to decades-old rumors. Moreover, even if complaints were withdrawn, it was now a "college concern." An alumna lawyer friend told me it was a “kangaroo court.”

After the end of the semester, and commencement, I was finally "interviewed." I provided the “outside investigator” with a lengthy written defense of the relevance of my remarks to the discipline, with research documentation in each case. Of course, according to the current rules, even if no comment “rises to the level of harassment,” an overall pattern might. As my wife remarked, “sort of like charging someone for going too frequently between 30 and 35 MPH in a 35 MPH zone.” During my interview I was also asked about calling a colleague “babe” (as in “thanks, babe” to someone doing me a favor), as well as whether I ever sent naked pictures of myself to a student. What? Members of my generation simply do not take naked selfies, and I certainly didn’t. I did tell them what a colleague once told me: “There is no rumor that is logically possible that isn’t out there somewhere.” By the time the “outside investigator” finished (absent any opposing representation), the judgment was “more rather than less likely to have committed sexual harassment.” I was provided no actual evidence, given no appeal, and not even told what I was adjudged to have done, beyond the judgment quoted above, and another iteration of the accusations. As my old student asked: “So why was the judgment rendered?” To this day, I have no real idea. It was the right time to go, as this kind of kangaroo court was only likely to get more ridiculous. I voluntarily retired, even before any judgment was rendered, and the college was very careful not to link my retirement to the “investigation,” nor were there any financial consequences.

Sadly, academic psychology under such circumstances has really become the study of "nice behavior," its science all “above the belt.” I had other things I wanted to do with my life in any case, and my financial situation no longer required me to work. There was no reason to believe that my little college wouldn’t continue to develop in directions that would render my teaching less rewarding and probably less effective. A colleague who taught sexuality in the biology department figured the sensitivity curve would eventually reach him and left the next year.

The college where I worked hadn’t yet implemented the kind of faculty “policing” that the author of “Storm Over Tulsa” describes. We’d had a “mandatory” program on discrimination, but it focused on the legal issues, and my takeaway lesson was that the only federal categories of anti-discrimination legislation were about race and ethnicity, sex (not gender orientation), and religion. Oh yeah, and age-based discrimination, making it almost impossible to get rid of tenured deadwood, or older faculty taking their own sweet time to retire, an economic issue in an era of declining revenues. Only one “consolidation” of departments had occurred, combining political science, pre-law, and philosophy into the Department of Politics, Legal Studies, and Philosophy. Our “pillars” of education were still headlined by critical thinking, but “navigating different worldviews” was second, and while the rest weren’t yet focusing on “feelings,” there was a lot of the “social justice” agenda found at Tulsa, and any number of other liberal arts institutions. Our religious heritage stressed “service” and, I’m sure “world peace.” But there was nothing like the extensive (“a few steps short of A Clockwork Orange”) pattern of “re-education,” like mandated training in unconscious bias, harassment, and microaggression, nor did the administration regularly survey “exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct.”

Still, an “anonymous, online-bias reporting system,” especially once students realized just how easily this could be used, meant we were not far from a full-blown Inquisition. I remember asking the Dean of Faculty, an erstwhile friend, whether if some student reported that he looked at her funny, or his eyes dropped below her neck while walking through the student center, he would have to be “investigated.” He said, “I guess so.” I was tempted. It would have been so easy to overload the system to the point of absurdity. Who can teach under this kind of threat, especially once it has been used against you a few times? Suddenly everything you say in class is subject to investigation, if some student doesn’t like it, or feels “uncomfortable.” What was once a life-changing transformation now must be “comfortable.”

I had a long talk with our college Chaplain, a wonderful, open-minded, and deeply compassionate individual. She asked me whether my visit was to her as a colleague or as a “spiritual advisor.” She heaved a sigh of relief when I said the latter, as it meant that our conversation was now protected by confidentiality rules and she couldn’t, down the road, be called to testify. She told me the faculty was starting to feel it, and the more incendiary and provocative the more likely, but anything adjudged by students to be outside the envelope of political correctness was fair game. The few seriously conservative colleagues I had were either very circumspect, or likely to be interrogated. But she also said that student services personnel had been under these guns for the better part of a decade, and that she sometimes awoke in a cold sweat, worrying whether something she had said might’ve offended someone, until her husband rolled over and told her to “shut the fuck up.” This is a direct quote from my Chaplain. She also said that she regularly got “head-hunted” by other institutions looking to hire a chaplain, but that if she left her post it would be to leave academia. She told me she envied my being able to retire early and wished me luck on what she expected would be a liberating escape, and a chance to enter a far more exciting phase of life, where one’s passions needn’t be constantly reined. Or, I suppose, yoked to an institution that was quickly ceasing to be a place of development and intellectual foment, and more a “higher nursery school.” College students once prided themselves for being college “men” or “women.” It has become increasingly inescapable that they are college “kids.” They are children. What has happened to our culture, that institutions of higher learning must offer events, or even whole courses on “adulting”? What about the average American, who has had “some college”? Do they, do we, largely fail as adults?