Opinion | How to prevent universities from becoming nurseries

How to prevent universities from becoming nurseries

Reuven Brenner March 15, 2017 12:21 PM (UTC+8)
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The undergrad dean at McGill University in Montreal found it appropriate to circulate the text below to faculty – including the business school:

“Mental Health Workshop will be offered on March 17: The following issues will be addressed during the workshop:

Academic performance can bring up many emotions for both undergraduate and graduate students. How can you, as an instructor or academic adviser, identify and respond appropriately to students who withdraw or behave in a distressed, disruptive, or dangerous manner? This 2.5-hour workshop will address noticing behaviors of concern, initiating supportive conversations, and mobilizing appropriate support resources. Since supporting students in distress can take an emotional toll on instructors and advisers, the importance of caring for yourself will also be discussed.”

Oh, the Great Mamma McGill. But isn’t this pathetic?

Here there are 18-year-old adults, with rights to vote and their older, “I feel your pain” frame-of-mind faculty, who, the university administration believes, must be pampered because – horror! – “academic performance can bring up many emotions”.

Poor, poor babies.

Other young people their age are enlisted in the army; sent overseas; working in farms, factories, construction, mines and oilfields. Non-academics toil hours in factories, in freezing streets, in hospitals, cutting trees, driving buses and trains – but academia is singled out for the emotional toll working with – presumably – young adults, already selected for their superior skills.

Working youth risk their lives and pay taxes, as do many adults not employed by academia or other subsidized entities. And what do universities worry about? That their heavily subsidized students and faculty suffer disproportionate emotional distress in need of accommodation.

Take a step back and think: Other people in the students’ age group serve in the military and pay tax, whereas they, the privileged students, many of whom will end up with higher-paying jobs than their already working counterparts are subsidized, resulting – predictably – in increased inequality in a few years. Yet, having too much time on their hands, and being self-absorbed in much faddish nonsense that passes for knowledge taught at universities these days (true, these are unlikely to result in high incomes), students demonstrate for – hold your breath – wiping out students’ debts, keeping tuition low and getting more subsidies.

Their thinking is apparently: “Why not let already hard-working youth pay for our studies, and let the foolish young entrepreneurs wanting to open a shop, a plumbing and electrical-repair business, start a venture, pay all our debts and taxes too?” We hardly hear about the latter group, as they work, whereas the former riot, demonstrate, break windows and make noise. A lot of noise.

The McGill circular is particularly embarrassing for being sent to a business faculty. After all, the faculty there should know something about working in business and the daily stress any career in business brings about. There is no tenure in business; you are expected to be responsible and be held accountable for your actions; even if you land a job, you must continuously learn and update, and you had better do it from your initiative, because if you do not, you fall behind. It means nothing to have been a decent computer-engineering student five, 10, 20 years ago. If you rested on your laurels, your knowledge today is worth nothing.

So in what institutions – if not universities – could youngsters be conveyed what is expected from them once they finish their studies?

Most countries no longer have mandatory military service, not even 18 months of national service that could teach youngsters not only some discipline, but also that life is not only about rights but obligations too, and allowing youth from different sides of the track to interact. Claiming “becoming emotional” because of … reading (!), being asked to learn(!) and being required to pass exams and show that they indeed did and can be assigned responsibilities, will not secure any jobs – except perhaps in academia and government bureaucracy or some wishy-washy NGO. What career in business can any faculty member recommend such emotionally unstable students for?

So maybe it is time for societies to wake up, and stop subsidizing universities without strong strings attached, and forcing them to carry out the task for which they have been created: Passing on skills and ideas from one generation to the next, hoping the young generation will improve upon them – knowing full well that the latter can only be done by rigorous selection of both students and faculty – no whiners.

If some faculty and students cannot deal with the emotional demands of learning, perhaps they should consider retiring to a monastery or nunnery – or invent new institutions to accommodate these days’ questioning, apparently stressed-to-the-limits volatile new gender categories. And universities should get back to having far better selections of both students and faculty.

And students matter more than faculty: Brilliant students will end up being brilliant even if their professors are not. But if professors are brilliant but the students are mediocre and below, and undisciplined, they will end up mediocre and below and undisciplined.

Society does no favors to youngsters by keeping them on university real estate if they are unable to learn and find the will to discipline themselves. Claiming anxiety and being emotionally upset, and having an entire “disability office” within universities writing rules to make their lives easier, getting degrees with less effort than their emotionally mature counterparts, is a recipe for disaster, leading to a generation of spoiled but potentially frustrated youth.

I am not talking here about youngsters suffering from physical handicaps or sudden personal tragedy. You do not need a university administration to accommodate these cases: Faculty members who know these students can find solutions. I am talking about a much larger group of students who, being heavily subsidized, do not – and have little incentive to – grow up and behave like responsible adults. They want to be taken care of, be pampered. Some of the best-known universities accommodated students by giving them dogs and Play-doh (University of Michigan), places to cry (Cornell), draw their reactions (Tufts), and coloring books and dogs  Columbia and University of Pennsylvania).

There is the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”. I do not know what “necessity” means. I know what “bankruptcy” and “falling far behind your expectations” mean – which are awaiting many such university-turned-nurseries-educated crybabies when they graduate. Unfortunately, most people forgot the second part of the saying: that “necessity can also be stepmother of self-deception”. What action such self-deception could then bring about is unpredictable, though history offers serious warnings: The present riots at universities and on the streets being the tip of the iceberg.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. The article draws on his book Force of Finance (2002).

Reuven Brenner
Dr. Reuven Brenner was appointed to the McGill Faculty of Management REPAP Chair in Economics in 1991. Brenner was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is member of the Royal Society. In February 2013, he was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to his peers, his community, and to Canada.
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