Dr. J. Patrick Plumlee's Lasting Lecture

Spring 2012

I like to begin by thanking Matt for that nice introduction. I do want to one-up Matt’s description of being chair of a department having a former university president, the union president, and the president of the Faculty Association. When I was chair of the old Department of Political Science and Sociology, I had at one time the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Provost, the university president and the union president in the department. And there were actually department meetings when they all showed up! So, I can certainly sympathize.


I would also like to thank Dean Hetrick and her staff for the opportunity to be here.


I do admit that I was surprised to find out that of the five COAS retirees , I would be the only one standing here today. I am still trying to figure out how that  happened. I think it was due to David Fenner’s talent for strategic compartmentalization, or perhaps his oh-so-smooth line of talk. He definitely has potential for a second career as a used car salesman--bait the hook and reel ‘em in.


I was certainly not selected on the basis of any superior qualifications for making some sort of presentation. I am sure that any one of my fellow retirees would do as well or better. That being said, I do want to issue a disclaimer that any opinions (and there may be some) expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect the views of the other retirees, or of the university, or of anyone else who happens to wander in the room while I’m speaking.


You might recall these “lasting lectures” were instituted by Dean Hetrick several years ago. David Fenner told me (more smooth talk) that I have a lot of latitude to choose what to do and how to do it. Last year, Henry Thomas earned a lot of good will by keeping his presentation short and relatively informal, so I’m going to heed the wisdom of his approach. If you really crave hearing more from me after this talk, you can catch me during the reception.


When Tom Pekarek began his Distinguished Professor talk at the University Convocation last fall, he admitted that he was faced with considerable uncertainty when he sat down to think about what he was going to say on that occasion. Like him, I was challenged by the blank sheet: what can I say, and , equally important, what should I not say? Thirty six years in academia is, after all, a long time, and a blow by blow recounting of my ups and downs personally or/and professionally during that time would make this “lasting lecture” indeed last--interminably.


Let me say first what I am not going to say. To what I am sure will be your vast relief , I am not going to reflect on the glories of the past here at good ‘ol UNF. While it is easy enough to wax nostalgic, I appreciate that most faculty, particularly newer faculty, perceive institutional history as a vast irrelevance, or perhaps a vast wasteland. While I don’t necessarily agree with that conclusion, it is the case that living through the past (back when it was known as the present) is usually more interesting than telling someone about it later. I know that because the glazed-eye index of my younger departmental colleagues suddenly increases whenever I begin another yarn about the good old days.


Another thing that I want to avoid is sharing my opinion about how administration could be running the University ever so much better. If I were really capable of running the University better than those who actually have that responsibility, then I would probably be running the university. If anyone in a leadership position cares to ask for my opinion, I am glad to give it. Beyond that, I avoid offering gratuitous advice, which is never welcomed and is rarely followed.


Likewise, with one small exception, I don’t intend to dispense any advice to you on how you should manage your professional careers. Other than the fact that I am the last person that you would select as an example of good career management, any strategies I might offer, while perhaps workable in an earlier era, are unlikely to be a good fit to current conditions. The sole bit of wisdom I would share is that you should cultivate a robust sense of humor. You will need it.


OK, we’ve covered what I am not going to cover, so at this point you may be mildly curious about where I’m going from here. I would like to do a couple of things. One is to share my perspective on the status of the university in today’s political and economic environment. Secondly, I have some observations regarding my professional interests over the quarter-century plus that I have been here at UNF.


Earlier this week, Mark Workman sent around his Provost’s Newsletter. In it he shared some information from a recent workshop for UNF leadership. The workshop was on how universities must adapt to the fast-changing circumstances they are now experiencing. Professor Mehaffy’s review article, which was included in the newsletter,  Did not leave me very optimistic about what the future holds for an institution like UNF, which might be too small or too large, or perhaps too generic, to be a good fit in the niches Mehaffy seems to view as viable.


My specific interest, however, is in why we are even having this conversation. Dr. Mehaffy characterizes the processes and practices (the DNA) of the modern university as more or less a knock-off of practices established first at Harvard, which then spreading outward through the country. He argues change is necessary because the rapid development of digital technologies has made the composition of the old DNA obsolete, or at least obsolescent. Perhaps. But the question I ask myself is: is an 800-year old model of success doomed merely because of changing technology? Is it the case that our survival depends on throwing all of the reliable old machinery over the side (along with many of the crew), and proceeding full steam ahead with only the shiny new stuff?  Well, maybe. Today is the hundredth anniversary of the loss of the Titanic, and somewhere in that I sense a metaphor.


I can’t answer definitively my own question about whether the classic university is doomed by technology. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is not. Universities have shown themselves to be amazingly flexible and adaptable over time to all sorts of changing conditions and expectations. Might not they weather this storm also? Perhaps, left to themselves, institutions of higher learning can learn, and will find a way to preserve their essential features and continue to make good use of existing capabilities, but accommodate new technologies as well.


If that were to be the case, would the perils of the modern public university be lessened? Unfortunately, no. There is another angle here. I am much less concerned about the challenges of modern technology than I am about the challenges of modern politics. My candidate for the biggest risk facing traditional universities is not that such institutions can’t adapt, but that standards of evaluation and success are being unilaterally changed for political reasons. More specifically, the key problem is that our DNA appears to not be a good fit to the politically preferred model for the delivery of educational services. What do I mean? To put this as plainly as I can, public universities in particular are increasingly characterized as “stores” that sell a particular commodity--degrees. Consequently, the only meaningful test of success for these Wal-Marts of higher learning is whether they can attract customers who are satisfied with the product. And that satisfaction is based almost entirely on one criterion–can the customer get a job as a consequence of having paid for a degree? Anything else universities accomplish is largely irrelevant, although some extras might be tolerated if they are cheap, or if someone else pays for them.


This is the underlying essence of the “Texas Plan” we have heard so much about, and which our governor is apparently still promoting.


In my view, this market approach to higher education is one more rung on an escalating ladder of political effort to privatize and commodify every conceivable aspect of public life in the United States. Some of you may remember President Reagan’s famous statement in his first inaugural that “government is the problem.” That has been the mantra of an on-going crusade to put the public sector to rout whenever the opportunity presents itself. Public administration, my home discipline, has been fighting a rear-guard action against this project for years, so the phenomenon is neither new nor unfamiliar to us. In fact, universities are a bit late to the party. Public sector organizations and the K-12 public education system have been under this type of assault for years, without much in the way of positive results to show for it, I might add.


The overall rationale of the project is that markets promote efficiency and keep costs low. Since many citizens seem to be only concerned about keeping costs (taxes) low, and hold the public sector in generally low regard anyway, this perspective has gained a significant amount of political traction. As I observe these trends, I see a lot more going on here than mere enthusiasm among public-minded citizens for the salutary discipline of the market. But that is another discussion. Suffice to say here that legitimate questions remain concerning how our collective needs and interests as communities and as a society can be met solely through the rampant idolization of self-interested consumption.


If there is any light in this dark subject, there is not a simple direct path to turn public institutions into private vendors. Consequently, proponents have been forced to resort to indirect means of achieving this goal. For example, micromanagement through demands for adherence to high levels of performance in tasks universities are not very good at, therefore illustrating the “failure” of higher education and the consequent need for “reform.” Another strategy involves reducing public support, therefore making universities depend more and more on the “customer base” for operating revenue. The expectation is that, caught between rising costs and student resistance to paying those costs, universities will accept the inevitable and embrace “reform.”


Now, some of you out there are probably thinking: and just what is wrong with these ambitions? Shouldn’t we want to be more efficient, more business-like, less expensive, and therefore more loved by our legislature, our students, their parents?


Well, that is a value question as I see it, and here is my response. Do you think that what you understand as the fundamental values of the university and of academic life are going to be unscathed by reform? Are we going to become miraculously more efficient, while other aspects of institutional life remain entirely unaffected? I think this unlikely. We are facing an agenda that potentially changes everything about the university as currently construed. That is what privatization and marketization do–they are iron fists that smash up old things. If you think you have no investment in the “old thing,” then you presumably will be happy with whatever emerges from the wreckage. However, if you have spent a considerable amount of time, effort and expense preparing to be part of a traditional institution, then having it disappear before your eyes is going to be, I predict, unsettling. And, I might add, there is no guarantee, and little evidence, that all of this reform is going to achieve any demonstrable improvement in quality at all.


In every year that I have been at UNF, we have always worried about what the legislature was going to do with regard to the university budget. However, we  never much worried that the legislature was going to change the fundamental terms of the game. So, if one could adjust to the inevitable inconsistencies in the budget year to year, there was no particular reason to be worried about the overall role of the universities in the life of the state. That, however, is no longer the situation.What we are seeing now is not about the vagaries of the budget, but rather about changing the game altogether. So this is my parting shot on the subject: new game, new stakes, and you are all players, whether you want to be or not.


Well, that was pretty depressing, so it is time to switch to a more positive mode. I don’t want to leave today without acknowledging the pleasure that I have experienced in being around colleagues who have been fighting the good fight for a Darwinian view of life. There is a whole back story here, but suffice to say that one of the intellectually thrilling experiences of my life has been having even a small role in the ever-advancing application of what Daniel Dennett has called “Darwin’s dangerous idea” from its native home in biology into a wide range of academic disciplines, and increasingly into the popular media as well.


As a social scientist, I apprehended even during graduate school that the composition of human nature, including whether or not we actually had such a thing, was a matter of high importance, and not just as a philosophical question. Since my grad school days, we have come to understand that we do have a distinctive human nature, one that comes to us as a consequence of the unique evolutionary history of our species. Combined with accomplishments of deciphering the human genome, and the expanding frontiers of brain, neural, and cognitive research, we are in extended our understanding of human behavior in some remarkable ways. With this larger picture in mind, I want to applaud the contributions of my two colleagues, David Courtwright and Sam Kimball, who have both written significant books applying Darwinian principles to, respectively, historical phenomena and literary analysis. For myself, I am proud to have been, in the late 1980s, the first faculty member in the university to have offered a course integrating evolutionary theory into a discipline outside biology. In some respects, UNF has been ahead of the curve in this area, and that is a distinction worth noting, and worth keeping. I particularly appreciate, by the way, that our new biology building has “evolution” cast in concrete as part of the building’s permanent facade. We can therefore forever point out to students  that “intelligent design” is not among the terms thus monumentalized.


For those of you who may not be aware of this, another subject I have taught for years is American defense policy. It is really my favorite course to teach. However, the context of the subject has changed remarkably over the years. Do any of you recall the Cold War? How green in memory! When I stepped in the door to teach my first class in this subject, the preeminent issue in international relations was the nuclear-armed rivalry between the superpowers. My own very real concerns about the possibility of a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the early years of the Reagan administration had given me a keen sense of urgency. I constantly challenged my students to consider what conceivable foreign policy gains could be worth the risk of a nuclear war. You can imagine my surprise (widely shared) when a few years later, the whole structure around which the U.S. had organized a significant portion of its national energy and effort simply vanished, more or less overnight. I hoped momentarily that the peaceful ending of the Cold War would help usher nuclear weapons off the scene as a significant factor in international relations, but I should have known better.


Ever since I began teaching the defense policy course, the dilemma of nuclear weapons has remained a central theme. This is not because I am unwilling to give up the past, but because the U.S. has made some very important foreign policy decisions based on our concerns about nuclear weapons and nuclear aspirations in other countries. Having already essayed one highly dubious war in this century over this issue, we are now faced with the potential for another one. Perhaps this time, wisdom and the better angels will prevail. But I am not encouraged if, as seems to be happening, the question of war becomes fodder for domestic political advantage in what is shaping up to be a bitter electoral season.


Again I am pleased to say that I have tried diligently to help students think critically about the role of nuclear weapons, as well as the many other arguments used to justify keeping the U.S. on what now seems a permanent war footing- one that has already lasted my entire lifetime. I will say that getting students to come to grips with such matters has been an uphill struggle in this community. At best, I would only rate myself as partially successful in this effort, although that does not deter me from continuing to try.


Ultimately, I find it sad that an almost obsessive insistence with military power as the only measure of national security has become so pervasive in American life. Questions about the desirability, the utility, or the grinding burden of the costs of this state of affairs seem to be rarely asked outside the academy. So, you might say the Cold War has been the gift that keeps on giving.


Well, by now I have given the wine plenty of time to breathe properly. I appreciate your patience, and having the opportunity to share some of my interests and concerns with such a broad cross-section of colleagues. This is an opportunity that hasn’t come my way all that often, and I feel quite privileged to be here.


Some time this summer, the blue cart will appear at my door, and I will be cleaning out my office. This time, I won’t simply be moving down the hall or to another building, so I will have to make some difficult choices about what ends up in that bin. However, pleasant memories and regard for the many kindnesses I have been shown by my colleagues, past and present, don’t take up much space, and are easy to carry. Those I will be happy to take with me. All the rest will just be things I leave behind.


I can’t say that I don’t have mixed feelings about all of this. After all, for the first time in 36 years, I won’t have an actual job. I know that many retirees return to teach as adjuncts, but that is not the same as being a regular player on the team. When my name plate comes off the door, I will be ever afterwards on the outside looking in. That will probably take a little getting used to, maybe more than a little.


Henry Thomas evoked Pericles last year to remind us of the ancient admonition to leave our city better than we found it. Those are wise words, and a goal worthy of aspiration. I can only say that I hope I contributed in my time in some small way to making things better here, or at least not making them any worse. But, that is not for me to decide. I can only report that my work here is almost done. I turn over the keys to the kingdom to those of you who remain, and wish you well as you find your own personal and professional paths into the new country that beckons ahead of you.


I have come a long way myself, and I admit that I am a little weary. So, you go on ahead without me. It is getting toward evening, and I would like to sit on the back porch and play my banjo for a while. There is a fine tune I am thinking of, and I hope to learn it before the night rolls in.