Truman Show

Peter Wood

An early favorite has emerged in the race to make NAS’s ten best list for higher education stories in 2014.  If you aspire to this honor, the one to beat is the video sent by the president of Truman State University (“Nationally Ranked, Affordable, Personal”) in Kirksville, Missouri.  President Troy D. Paino (“T-Pain”) sent a video card to his students on Winter Break, “T-Pain Misses You.” 

In the video, President Paino takes advantage of the empty campus to play with toy soldiers on his desk, ride a tricycle around the office, measure the exact height of a hoop on the basketball court (and Windex the backboard), straighten books in the library, play Taps on his trumpet, and more. He accomplishes a rare thing in this video: a satire of college presidents in general that is buoyant, good-humored, and very funny. It is hard to imagine Lee Bollinger or Drew Faust managing to be so winsome or suffering themselves to be so playful. 

Several comment-leavers have treated the video as brilliant marketing. That’s a slightly deadening perspective, but probably true up to a point. President Paino has made Truman State visible in a positive way to a national audience that otherwise seldom thinks of Truman State University.  It is a respectable, middle-of-the-road institution. U.S. News & World Report ranks it eighth among regional universities in the Midwest—which is to say, fairly invisible. The chairman of its board is an assistant vice chancellor of alumni and development at Washington University, and the vice chairman is “a fifth generation licensed funeral director and embalmer.” Both look like highly competent individuals who have deep affinity for their alma mater.  But they also reinforce the impression that Truman State isn’t much gripped by the relentless pursuit of prestige that infects so much of American higher education. 

The university’s winter commencement speaker is an alumna who is currently “Missouri Teacher of the Year.” 

Truman State, by most measures, is about as wholesome as a public university as we have these days. A strategic plan adopted in 2007 announced a commitment to “financial access to a superior educational experience.” It is a university that is keeping in mind the danger of imposing exorbitant debt on its graduates. 

Arcadia

While there is much to like about President Paino’s video and while Truman State University is an estimable example of public higher education, we shouldn’t drift off into an Arcadian dream. "Et in Arcadia ego"—I am even in Arcadia, says Death.  And even at Truman State, one of the green plastic toy soldiers bites the dust and the president plays Taps. 

In that spirit, I would like to brush aside some of the good feeling and point to a few of the doubtful aspects of Truman State.  To be sure, on a national scale, they aren’t so bad, and if you would prefer not to know, replay the video and read no further.

Still here?  Then let’s look at the university’s somewhat unrealistic view of itself; the beachhead made by silly pseudo-theory in the English Department; the vacuous “Leadership” degree program; and Truman State’s wobbly embrace of sustainatopian ideology. 

Truman and the Liberal Arts

Truman State declared a few years ago that “our vision is to be the nation’s premier public liberal arts and sciences university.” 

That seems unlikely on its face, but even unlikelier in view of the university’s current curriculum which is a great mixture of liberal arts departments with vocationally-oriented ones.  It has baccalaureate programs in art, art history, biology, chemistry, classics, computer science, economics, English, French, German, history, linguistics, mathematics, music, philosophy and religion, physics, political science, psychology, Russian, sociology/anthropology, and Spanish.  So the core of the liberal arts is indeed amply represented. 

Interspersed with these majors, however, are accounting, agricultural science, athletic training, business administration, communication, communication disorders, creative writing, exercise science, health science, justice systems, nursing, and theatre. Those are areas of study that focus primarily on vocations, rather than the liberal arts.  And that emphasis is even more pronounced in Truman’s eight master’s degree programs: accounting, biology, communication disorders, counseling, education, English, leadership, and music. 

Leadership?

No doubt the tilt to vocational majors and master’s degree programs makes good sense for the university in serving its 5,800 undergraduate and 300 graduate students.  It works. For instance, Truman ranks 8th in the nation for graduates who pass the CPA Exam. But it is not a “liberal arts college” in the sense that, for example, Bowdoin is a liberal arts college. 

The Anguish of English

That means that so far Truman State University has escaped some of the conspicuous nonsense that has redefined the “liberal arts” at trendier institutions.  Truman does not appear to be overwhelmed by the various forms of identity studies and politics-is-everything fetishes of its more prestigious counterparts. 

But that’s not to say it is immune. Drill down another layer or two in the catalog and you find some departments that are in conceptual trouble. The English major has “five core classes” that all majors must take, none of which necessarily includes Shakespeare or other major figures such as Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Hawthorne, or Melville. The five requirements are courses on language writing skills, and “the theoretical, cultural, and historical diversities that shape literary tradition.”  These “diversities” in turn are linked to three “axes”— “geography, history, and theory.” 

The slippery terms are a prelude to the content. The “geography axis” of the English major offers options such as “Studies in Myth” and “Greek and Latin Literature in Translation.” (Translations of Greek and Roman classics into English, such as those by Chapman, Pope, and Dreiden, are of course an important strand in English literature—but hardly as important as reading the classics of English literature themselves.) The “history axis” offers options such as “Theorizing Class in Literature,” and “History of Literary Criticism.” And the “theory axis” blossoms into topics such as “Feminist Criticism,” “Queer Theory,” “Gender Studies,” and “Studies of Literary Genres.” 

The English Department isn’t the only place where the Truman State curriculum falters, but it stands as the warning that even at a university as seemingly well-grounded as this, some departments have yielded to the temptation to substitute the crotchets of the postmodern graduate schools for a worthy, well-organized, and coherent liberal arts education. 

Leadership?

That oddly named master’s degree program, “Leadership,” appears to be a catchall for people who think their careers will be enhanced by getting another degree but who have no particular interest in an academic subject or body of professional expertise.  It could well be making money for the university, but the catalog description of it is sad:

Many people who have earned a baccalaureate degree find themselves wanting to think more intentionally about how to work in and with organizations to advance professional and personal goals. This degree is tailored to such an audience.

President Paino, you might want to revisit this program and see if it really fits with the university’s aspirations. 

Sustainability

Truman State’s “Graduate Certificate in Sustainability and Environmental Studies” is disquieting in another way. The university has so far steered clear of most of the excesses of the radical sustainability movement. It has not turned environmental activism into an undergraduate major or allowed utopian fantasies to trump the teaching of market economics, political theory, or philosophy.  But there are cracks.

The Political Science Department teaches “The Politics of Sustainability,” which covers “social justice and sustainability; and the sustainability philosophies and perspectives of ‘radical’ movements.” The Interdisciplinary Studies Major offers “Applied Sustainability: Optimizing Value from Concept to the Boardroom to the Bottom Line,” which focuses on “the practical application of implementing sustainability in business, land use, products and daily life.”  It also offers “Introduction to Sustainability: From Science to Society,” which focuses on “climate change, loss of biological diversity and ecosystem services, and invasive species.”  The Economics Department offers “The Economics of Sustainability,” which deals with “optimal usage and management of common-pool resources; environmental regulation; the impact of government taxes and subsidies; environmental benefit estimation methods;” and, thank goodness, “cost-benefit analysis.” And the Geography Department offers “Environmental Geography,” which examines “conflicts concerning the use of natural resources, and potential solutions to promote environmental sustainability.”

Truman State is not a signatory to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, but it is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and participates in its STARS program, which tracks the success of colleges and universities in meeting sustainability goals. Truman State has achieved a “Bronze” STARS rating.   

The sustainability movement is seductive.  It convinces otherwise level-headed people to set aside common sense in favor of highly speculative theories and sometimes self-destructive programs.  It doesn’t appear that Truman State—formerly Northeast Missouri State University, and before that First Missouri Normal School and Commercial College—is about to lose its way.  But it might be wise to take counsel on this creeping commitment.

Wound Up

College presidents are not corporate CEOs. They have relatively limited power over their institutions. One thing, however, is very much within their reach.  They can set the tone for their institutions. These days that tone tends to be some version of grim determination. One doesn’t get the impression that college presidents are an especially happy bunch.  Maybe that comes from their commitments to causes that are rooted in resentments of various sorts. When they speak, they seem to watch every word. 

President Paino is a good-natured exception, and I hope he will take my criticisms of his university in stride. If not, he should know that against his army of toy soldiers, I have a legion of wind-up robots.


Image: Screenshot from Youtube video- "T-Pain Misses You"

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