Duke University Alumni Magazine

January 31, 2000
A DUCK IN A TREE

by Stuart Rojstaczer



recently published an insider's guide to universities and how they work, Gone for Good: Tales of University Life after the Golden Age. Gone for Good is a chatty, unvarnished portrait of universities written primarily for tuition-paying parents-- past, present, and future --and is based mostly on my first seven years as a professor at Duke. I am a scientist, a true-blue, nerdy scientist and, by all conventional and unconventional wisdom, I should never have written something like Gone for Good. As one of its reviewers said, "A scientist who writes about a university is about as rare as a duck in a tree."

Gone for Good strongly argues for universities to curb their excesses and demand more from students. With no sex scenes, fad diets, courtroom drama, or engrossing tales of poverty while growing up in Ireland, it isn't a bestseller. But it has generated a fair amount of discussion on some college campuses, not the least being Duke. How did I, a duck in a tree, come to write it?

Let me first say that my skills as a non-technical writer aren't quite as suspect as one might expect of a scientist. As a teenager, I wrote a bit--a bad novella and several short stories--and remember writing down a personal challenge to publish my first novel by the time I was twenty-two. My novel never happened. I went on to graduate school in the sciences and didn't look back. For the next ten years, throughout graduate school and

a stint in a federal research lab, I was immersed in work and family. But my move to Duke was a turning point. I was living and working in a part of the country that was completely foreign to me. My job was rewarding, but I had to work harder than I had ever worked in my entire life. I had to learn to juggle more things at once--research, teaching, papers, grant proposals, committee meetings, family and friends--than I thought was humanly possible.

All that time, I was looking around me, almost clinically observing students, parents, faculty, and administrators. After receiving tenure, I looked back at what I had accomplished and, surprisingly, wasn't pleased. Ironically, much of my success had come at the expense of the quality of my instruction and research. After several years of mediocre student reviews and declining class enrollments, despite working hard on my teaching, I had found a disheartening key to success: Once I expected much less from students and gave nearly everyone A's and B's, the reviews of my classes dramatically improved.

I had spent about a fourth of my time during my first seven years chasing after research money. The effort was rewarding financially to me, providing a salary for my summers, and to the university, which taxed my research money at a rate of roughly 33 percent. But by pursuing fundable research, I found myself working on the kind of safe projects that achieve largely predictable results. I could not afford to devote my energies to the type of cutting-edge work that might produce breakthroughs.

It seemed to me that I was spending a good deal of my time keeping students comfortable and happy and giving them a false sense of achievement. Through writing grant proposals and managing the money stream associated with successful grants, I spent even more of my time helping the university stay financially solvent. To get tenure and be respected at my university, I had been required to abandon my ideals, lower my standards in the classroom, and lower my own expectations of intellectual achievement. I looked at my colleagues at Duke and elsewhere, and almost all of them were doing the same. I was dismayed.

I started to talk about Duke's successes and failures--and most of the good, bad, and ugly at Duke is contained in universities across the country. I started to talk about how universities needed to change. I was strictly talking, however, and had no intention of writing anything down. Then I had lunch with a senior administrator at Duke and made a sarcastic remark about how we charge so much for tuition, yet largely ignore our undergraduates. He looked at me like I had wounded him. "You know, people like you write books," he said. "They do?" I asked. "Yes," he answered, "they write books criticizing universities."

I asked him to recommend a book critical of universities, and he mentioned The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. After lunch, I stopped by Perkins Library to pick up a copy. I slogged through it. Bloom's book is a whiny diatribe on the loss of classical education and the toxic influence of popular culture in the university and beyond. Spurred on by my lunch conversation and Bloom's turgid screed, I began to work at night writing my own book on universities.

At first, my goal was very modest. I started to write a tongue-in-cheek piece centered on the topic of how to get tenure. I quickly abandoned that effort. Then I had a chance conversation with a friend. She had just sent her oldest son to Northwestern University, a school in many ways similar to Duke. "I just sent a check to Northwestern for $30,000," she said. "Tell me, what is it that goes on there?" Right then and there, I knew that I would write an inside book on universities for tuition-paying parents. I would write for parents because their checks were a vital source of revenue. They had clout. If parents read my book and, as a result, demanded an end to lax standards in the college classroom, they could effect positive change.

My tuition-paying friend had a strong inkling that undergraduate education and university life are quite different now compared to twenty-five years ago, when she was a student. But she didn't know exactly how. She didn't know that universities are now under tremendous financial pressure. When she was a student, the federal government was pumping nearly exponentially increasing levels of money into university research and student financial aid. She was a beneficiary of the tail end of an unprecedented growth spiral in higher education that began at the beginning of the Cold War. By the end of the Cold War, the era of federal largesse--the "Golden Age of American higher education"--had come to a close.

Universities today can no longer count on dramatic increases in federal support, but they had, over a forty-year period, grown to such a degree that their financial obligations from building maintenance to salaries were and are tremendous. Presidents, deans, and faculty members are spending so much time in their search for money that intellectual discovery in teaching and research is being shoved into the back seat. Students can still get an excellent education at Duke and elsewhere, but because our standards are so low, they must be highly self-motivated. Undergraduate education has devolved into a self-service operation. A faculty member can still pursue cutting-edge research, but often such faculty members operate against the grain of what is expected.

I've traveled around the country a bit and have done signings, readings, and talk radio shows. By far, the most enjoyable encounters have been with parents. They want to know what college life is about today and are very concerned about the quality of undergraduate education.

The most frequent question I hear, however, has nothing to do with undergraduates. People invariably ask me, "What do people at Duke think about this book?" It's a fair question. Gone for Good shows universities warts and all, and, since many of my examples are from Duke, it's usually assumed by my audience that I must be receiving nasty e-mail messages from the Duke community and tight-lipped greetings on the campus quadrangle. In fact, very little of this has happened. A former dean ran into me on a staircase and smiled. "You know, Stuart, if I had the time, I would have written a book much like yours," he said.

I'm pleased that Gone for Good is being read at Duke and elsewhere. I think that it reflects well upon my university that this book --which is fairly critical of universities, and Duke in particular--can be accepted for what it is: an effort that ultimately seeks to make universities serve students and society better. I hope that it will succeed in this goal.



Rojstaczer, an associate professor of hydrology, is director of Duke's Center for Hydrologic Science.




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