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Mark Meister, Published October 25 2009

‘Economic engine’ not whole story

I am a proud faculty member at North Dakota State University. In my 13 years, NDSU has seen incredible growth under the leadership of President Joe Chapman. He created a campus climate that engaged all members of the NDSU community, including faculty, to work hard at distinguishing themselves and NDSU as an important national and international land-grant institution.

His legacy is unquestionably one that all residents of North Dakota should celebrate. I think Chapman would agree that NDSU’s growth, both in numbers and quality, has been largely due to the research and teaching skills of NDSU’s exceptional faculty.

Unfortunately, we rarely read in local print, or hear on TV broadcasts or talk radio, about NDSU faculty contributions, unless these contributions are linked to economic issues.

For better or worse, NDSU consistently promotes itself as a great economic engine in the state: incubating jobs, developing research parks, building facilities – all subsidized by rhetoric that promotes economic development. Unfortunately, the economic metaphor consistently chanted by NDSU is how the public comes to perceive an institution.

We read and hear about $2 million houses, salaries for spouses and other recent economic issues, primarily because NDSU is perceived more as a business than a university. NDSU administrators and students have accepted the economic metaphor by acting more like executives and consumers than university administrators and students. Moreover, legislators require only economic evidence and grant merely their permission for those projects they themselves will not fund.

The State Board of Higher Education and NDSU exist in a system where faculty have minimal voting rights. As a result, we only hear about faculty successes when they are consistent with the “university as business” metaphor. At the soul of any great university is a faculty whose members are bound by an ethic of sharing and creating knowledge and not by economic pursuits.

Academics are the conscience and soul of universities. Unfortunately, the NDSU faculty is silenced both by choice and by design from functioning as the university’s conscience, and as a result we hear about mansions and pensions. How are NDSU faculty silenced? NDSU faculty sit quietly while a hierarchy has been created that keeps our conscience confused.

NDSU does not have a faculty senate – an important body that would provide commentary and resolutions that may encourage those internal and external to NDSU to think beyond economic significance. NDSU does have a University Senate, a body that I’m involved with, but quite honestly, this entity is a bureaucratic formality; it is not a critical body that maintains the primary ethical obligation of NDSU: to be a place of teaching, research and learning.

NDSU is not primarily an economic incubator; it is a place that creates and shares new knowledge. I am not a bitter and passive faculty member who blames administrators for all my gripes. I am a faculty member who engages in dialogue about the role of NDSU and who, like many of my colleagues, puts knowledge above profit.

Otherwise, I’m contributing to a public dialogue that is more concerned about cash than education. And as we celebrate Chapman’s impressive tenure, all members of the NDSU community, including faculty, must remind themselves that we, too, contributed to its success.

Chapman continues to provide a strong vision of leadership, and now as we transition toward a new era of advancement, let’s not forget the hard work of everyone, citizens, staff, students, administrators and primarily faculty, who have implemented his vision.

Our work continues. Let it be guided primarily by the fundamental characteristics of a great land-grant university: to create new knowledge through engaged and credible research and to continue an impressive tradition of teaching excellence – all bound by an ethic of service to North Dakotans.

Meister, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the Walter F. and Verna Gehrts Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at NDSU. He is president of the University Senate. Opinions expressed here do not reflect opinions of all members of the University Senate.