In the weeks after College of Charleston President George Benson announced his early retirement, a general rally of sorts among the Holy City’s elites arose, seeking either to position themselves or their allies in the soon-to-be-vacated office. Who can blame them? After all, Benson leaves the post he held for the last six years with a salary of around $360,000, not to mention the keys to a fairly nice downtown home, surrounded by 10,000 young adults who pay for it all.
Among those expressing interest in the job is former S.C. First Lady Jenny Sanford (perhaps she’d like a house that her ex-husband does not have a key to), but it would appear CofC faculty don’t think she’s a good candidate. Last week the college faculty expressed a powerful desire for their new leader to be someone at the national level, preferably a candidate with an academic background.
While these criteria are admirable, putting an academician in charge at CofC will do little to reverse the ill effects of a larger problem, one that affects colleges across the nation — namely, the increasing influence of the business class and management professionals in the day-to-day operations of higher education over the men and women who actually teach there.
Today, college is little more than a big business for schools, or more accurately, for the administrators, the boards, and the athletic departments. In the past, there was at least some pretense that going to college meant getting an education and bettering oneself. Now schools barely offer the pretense of education. They just want bodies. And to do this, they create marketing departments, sometimes more than one, and, in the case of CofC, cannibalize an award-winning video production center to produce PR videos. At one time, just having thoughtful, intelligent work — like the CofC Center for the Documentary’s Tap Out, For Every Person There is a Name, and Where Do We Go from Here? — produced by an arm of the school would be enough to attract some students, but the business of education cannot survive merely on people who want to produce art or meaningful documentaries.
Instead, like all monolithic ventures in late capitalism and a consumerist culture, colleges now exist merely to draw in more students, which means more revenue, which means a growth in the administrative support staff to handle all of the new students, which leads back to needing more students.
Schools now climb over each other to offer prospective students not just the best chances for education, but also the best student “experience,” with fantastic, brand new dorms (overbooked before they even open), food courts (often of the corporate and low-health variety), a top-notch football or basketball team (with the accompanying top-notch stadium, arena, and/or training and tutoring facilities), and usually some sort of fairy tale about living a charmed life in a vibrant city or quaint countryside (where they will be a scourge to the local population).
To its credit, the College of Charleston has a “strategic plan” that mentions hiring more full-time professors (as opposed to merely bringing in more part-time adjuncts, who can never hope to gain tenure or even a decent paycheck). But the fact that CofC has stooped to such a marketing-speak legerdemain of linguistics as having a strategic plan is also telling about the sorry state of higher education. However, the College is already too deep in the morass of administrative hell that plagues almost every institution in our sadly over-managed modern world. After all, President Benson presides over seven vice-presidents, one provost, one athletic director, and nine deans, all of whom lord over 50 departments and schools. Assuming even a moderate number of support staff deal with the operations of those departments, it’s not hard to imagine the school’s 500 full-time faculty being overwhelmed by the sheer number of management professionals at whatever passes for a yearly employee picnic on a college campus.
Much in the way that the political class manipulates its true believers into thinking that voting out incumbents will radically alter the way government operates (it won’t, by the way), academics and professors somehow lead themselves into believing that changing the nature of the person in charge of their school will somehow fundamentally alter the school into a “purer” version of the educational dream that America places so much value in. Unfortunately, this is likely not the case.
In the meantime, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees — which, not surprisingly, is composed of little more than business professionals and public relations people — might as well select whichever favored member of their class they would like to see inhabit the president’s residence next year. It won’t change a damn thing either way.
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