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NDE are the national educational radio network presents special of the week. The new president of New York's Columbia University William J McGill's spoke recently at the Economic Club of Detroit. Dr. McGill is a native New Yorker a graduate of Harvard and before becoming the 16th president of Columbia he was Chancellor of the University of California at San Diego. William J McGill told the members of the Detroit Economic Club what he feels. Lies ahead for our universities. All of us in higher education are preoccupied with the question of where we're heading. The question now is that US because so much on certainty now afflict the academic community. There is reason enough to be concerned. Public universities are in fundamental difficulty with their legislatures and with the voters. Private universities have suddenly found themselves drifting into serious debt with no easy prospects for getting out. Students are restless and
alienated. Even an insensitive administrator. Can easily pick up the signs of alarm among his faculty alumni attorney. Wow this period in the history of American universities might certainly be characterized as challenging it is not what any of us would call a happy time for more than two decades. We have fashioned an academic aristocracy exhibiting the highest excellence excellence has been served to the point. That American graduate and professional education is simply the best there is anywhere in the world. This. Sensitive and self-conscious educational establishment now finds itself under attack by politicians by public and students alike. Funds and privileges are undergoing rapid constriction. Junior faculty see a void. Where
once universities are offered bright prospects for a career. And these junior men are now flirting with unions. What will become of our standards of excellence then. I am trying to convey a sense of crisis in our universities that runs much deeper than demonstrations and revolutionary rhetoric. We are experiencing a crisis of the Spirit. It is morbid sentiment that the Sens upon large institutions when their security and purpose are threatened. The crisis it seems to me is not unlike the one through which our entire nation is passing. Indeed almost every aspect of American society good and bad finds itself represented in some way on campus. The university crisis however. Has elements of uniqueness that require thought and attention. Our institutions of higher learning are the very foundation of the
future of health and safety of America. In a technological age when the competition even from our friends grows fiercer year by year it is more obvious that nothing is more important than the need to preserve and enrich our universities. Accordingly we must pay careful attention to their troubles. And seek immediately to correct what is correctable. Recognizing that such action is ultimately in the national interest there has been too much talk lately about punishing students and faculties for their sins and not enough concern for discovering the nature of the problems that universities are experiencing. Our spiritual crisis is understandable if one reflects on the extraordinary changes we have witnessed during the last two decades our student
census was 2.6 million in one thousand fifty three point six million in 1960 and is near 7.5 million today. This is simply astonishing growth for the nation's colleges and universities. The latter are essentially conservative institutions which do not adapt to change easily or painlessly. Only a part of this change has been achieved by expansion of existing institutions. Much of it has been accomplished. In the construction of new ones. This has introduced wholly new concepts of mobility and competition into the academic profession. Moreover. Our higher educational system has become transformed rather rapidly from one originally oriented toward undergraduates. To one stressing graduate and professional education. Vast resources were poured into the growth of graduate
departments and professional schools during the last two decades. During this expansionist period federal aid for instruction and research in physical science health science social science increased regularly and rapidly year by year. Such resources. Became a vital stimulus for new growth. And it was concentrated as I have said largely in graduate and professional areas. The intellectual requirements necessary to secure acceptance into this rarefied zone of educational attainment also increased both in scope and difficulty. We developed an elite corps of star professors famous for their outstanding creative work and a variety of blandishments and privileges became built into this academic stellar system. All of us.
Remember the raiding parties from the west coast combing the best universities in the east for academic talent during the early part of the 1960s I myself was recruited to California in this way and I have a deeply personal understanding of the sense of adventure of those times. Just consider how it was. Columbia was expanding exponentially at approximately 11 percent per year doubling our costs every six years and shifting rapidly toward the highest standards of excellence in research and in graduate study. We found ourselves in cutthroat competition with other universities for a limited number of able professors. We were worried about our academic ratings and wondering whether next year's growth would meet the standards set by our competition. We were frozen by the thought of becoming a second class university. Through the mere exercise of civilized
caution. That was what it was like. It was a dizzy expansive time. An academic stud poker game in which the pot was raised. Year by year and all of us had to bet that the technological superstate we were building would continue to fit the bill. Of course one of the central problems of the period of extraordinary growth during the 1950s and early 1960s was that we began to neglect undergraduate education in many universities. The instruction of undergraduates was left to graduate students and to junior faculty. We came to regard it as a burden that might one day be care stuff by universities and left to other institutions of lesser significance. Another critical problem. But in this instance one which we understood fully. Was our rapid growth of costs. And an increasing dependence on federal
support that had left us in circumstances where even modest cutback in federal funding. For research and for student aid where even such a modest cutback would immediately plunge universities into a fiscal crisis. Now that has happened. Our problem was not very different. From the one afflicting many firms which have come to defend to depend on defense spending. And verse on the politics of the Cold War for their livelihoods. This is an era in which the growth of technology is forcing increased dependence on federal support. In industry and universities alike. The ups and downs of our fortunes in the halls of Congress could and did have profound effects on our institutional health. And just now we are hurting. As I review our recent history even in this
sketchy way it becomes apparent. That the sense of deep anxiety afflicting universities as we face toward the 1970s is really not very complicated for two decades. We have built an academic aristocracy of extraordinary excellence and power. Not much more than five years ago most of us expected that it would continue to expand under the imperative demands of continued technological growth. It would be an act of folly for a society so dependent upon advanced education to do anything that would damage a mechanism which although not fully understood and certainly not perfect in its inner workings is at least achieving a degree of advancement beyond any challenge in the rest of the world. We saw ourselves five years ago as the workhorse institutions of technological America absolutely essential for the
training of societies managers and leaders. In fact we still view ourselves this way and must continue to do so. But a decade ago most Americans agreed with us. They admired the scholarly community shared its aspirations and gave it unstinting support. Then we began to experience serious unrest among undergraduate students. There was an almost immediate crisis of authority in universities when faculty began to sense a powerful threat to their role as behind the scenes managers of our educational institutions. This role developed very naturally because our only business is the advancement of knowledge. There is no question that faculty are uniquely qualified to decide how academic activities should be carried on. Most of the overt unrest that we experienced on campus was political in tone. And now it
seems plain that it was led by radical students with revolutionary ambitions. The faculty asked. Why were students so restless and why were those they so willing to follow radical leadership. Faculty reasoned that administrators must've been dealing insensitively with students. One of the axioms of the academic life is the view that acceptance into a high quality academic department is so attractive that most students will seek it relentlessly. When some of our best students began to follow radical leadership and political causes faculty concluded that something was fundamentally wrong with society and with university administrators or perhaps both. Of course it was not that simple. Troubles with society were clear enough. But faculty were so deeply involved with their own work. That student unrest
really did take them by surprise. Universities which experienced moderately severe student disorders were instantly transformed from elite communities structured by the leadership of their star faculty members into worried and disintegrating communities in which everyone students faculty and administrators alike talked constantly to everyone else searching for answers on what was wrong. Seeking to paper over great gaps. In understanding by it seemed to me endless talk. It is now perfectly obvious to us all that something very serious has happened to the academic life. Not just in America but everywhere in Western society. The volatile combination of free institutions and an advanced technology seems
suddenly to have produced extraordinary resistance to higher education in a number of nations and cultures differing widely in historical backgrounds and lifestyles. Our own country's special problem appears to center on increasing specialization in education leading to more and more complex preparation for more and more narrowly defined career goals. The growing complexity of education. And the growing competition for survival in academe has accelerated the process of rejection among college students in this respect. Our situation is very much like the academic situation prevailing in Japan. This rejection is proving to be shattering to many American universities because as I have suggested it is almost axiomatic with us
that graduate and professional education as we have been developing it during the last two decades is central to our society's future. We are now observing cracks and strains in the structure as the alienation of undergraduate students continues. There is I think a spreading fear that certain universities may collapse into a welter of conflict. Our sense of crisis derives not so much from the fear that universities may suffer a disastrous loss of public support although God knows we fear that. It is perhaps a more fundamental anxiety that some of our able list students seem unwilling to join in the challenge of acquiring new systematic language new systematic knowledge and seek instead to construct simplistic ideologies in order to escape from the rigorous task of becoming educated in the 1970s.
Thus the concern we feel is one that goes to the heart of our society and its future. Now given that background I'd like to look forward into the next decade attempting to examine the problems we expect to face and the directions we expect to follow as they as they seem to be forecast from what we know of our recent past. I have tried to indicate that many of our problems derive from contradictory trends in our national life which have helped to put exceptional stress on our universities. Contradictory tendencies are characteristic of any diverse and complex social order whose orientation is pragmatic rather than ideologically rigorous. We experience such contradictions everywhere in our national life they are part of the vigor and strength of American society. Vast contradictory directions in higher education should not be viewed as signs of
danger or decay. But as typical problems to be solved. In order to assure typically American progress in education in the 1970s. I would like to mention three of these problems to you today. They seem to me to be of overriding importance in judging our future. The first problem has been alluded to briefly. It is the conflict between increasing specialisation of American life and the increasing demands for freedom and self-determination manifested by our students. We are a society unusually taken up with credentials. In many respects. We are less interested in real achievement than in pieces of paper certifying proficiency in American higher education now offers some sixteen hundred different degrees. A good many of these are built into state and federal certification programs and they have
become the means of occupational entry and as such they are zealously guarded by self-conscious professionals. Students who want to succeed in the complex society we have built. Feel that they must go to college whether they like it or not. Those statistics are very convincing of the college level age group in nineteen hundred four percent attended college. In 1970 the figure is 40 percent. And in states like California New York the figure is 60 percent. Many of these young people have no particular interest in or drive toward learning. In these times of course the need to acquire necessary credentials is complicated by the need to escape the draft. But it is estimated that as many as one fifth to one quarter of our undergraduate students are enrolled in college as a grudging concession to the expectations of parents and to the demands of a system that they resent.
Nearly half the students who enroll in college drop out before they are in a degree. It is also apparent that the difficulty of graduate and professional education has gradually extended the time necessarily spent in apprenticeship. That time increases remorselessly year by year decade by decade. Our educational institutions adapt very slowly to the accumulation of knowledge and they tend to pyramid requirements rather than to rethink the entire educational process. Moreover. Businesses and professions have evolved a credentialing system which makes it necessary for young people not only to attend college but to spend more time in higher education in order to qualify for adequate entry into business and professional life. The practice is not necessarily justified by the nature of modern business and professional activities.
Indeed it seems plain that the required basic skills and knowledge can often be acquired more readily through on the job training. Versus what is involved is the acquisition of a credential. Qualifying a young man for entry into an occupation rather than the acquisition of a skill necessary for performance. It is very important that business and professional leaders in this country face this problem. It is becoming increasingly necessary for universities to contemplate fundamental reform. Generating a more rational relation between occupational ladders and parallel educational ladders. Thus permitting free movement back and forth between the university and the profession and extending education over a whole lifetime. It appears that
continued technological growth. All ultimately require such educational reform. Leadership will also be required from the business and professional communities educators cannot do this alone. We should be seeking ways. To provide new types of credentials. That offer good access to occupations. Earlier than the bachelor's degree most important we should be seeking ways in which students might make a not an occupational choice without committing themselves in advance to an infinite regress of prior training. I seek such reform because I believe that it is intimately related to the control of the rejection syndrome visible on campus as the complexity of our lives continues to grow. The development of alienated styles of dress. On campus is not nearly so
important as the philosophical rationale for the alienation itself. The latter attracts some of our best students and the growing popularity of drop out ideologies forecasts. Serious challenges for American society and for our institutions. Interest in science with the possible exception of biology is declining. Interest in humanities and social science is growing. The graduate student population seems to be decreasing but there is increasing interest among graduate students in anthropology psychology sociology literature philosophy and fine arts. Corresponding to the growing alienation of our students. It is a growing creative effort in painting music and theater. There is also a great surge of interest in medicine and law because these
professions offer opportunities for participation in social change search changes in student interests. Indicate important changes in what we may expect students centered universities to be doing in the next decade and I hope that society is ready for this artistic and professional ferment. I don't think so. The ideological and emotional commitments which many of our students feel for self-determination are pitted against. The increasing professionalization of American life. Decreed by our relentlessly growing technology. The Coalition of these trends professionalization on the one hand self-determination on the other has produced and I feel a good youth culture on campus. The youth culture rejects the middle class and its values it seeks to develop challenges of the philosophical axioms on which all
our institutions are founded. We have watched this youth culture spread very rapidly during the last five years on American campuses rejecting business and professional careers stressing an ideology of humanism and protest and seeking to experiment with new modes of social functioning. It is a predictable reaction. To the great technological and professional expansion that our society has experienced in the past two and a half decades. Life has simply become so complex and so demanding that many of our most capable and most sensitive students are toying with rejecting it. A second contradictory trend. Second contradictory trend involves increasing demands for equality in American life in contrast with the traditional conception of the university as an elite community. Devoted to intellectual excellence. More and more minority students
have been recruited to our campuses. These students have increasingly challenge the selection mechanisms that we have always applied to students and from which our high standards are derived. In his very excellent essay on excellence John Gardner viewed education as a sorting out process. The selection standards of our institutions soared out the highest levels of ability. Gardner wrote before the now familiar confrontations with minority students had developed. But he foresaw our dilemma. We have opened our universities increasingly to minorities not so much because our ideals require it or because our students would tolerate no one of the past year at this time in our history. But because the black demand for liberation is the central preoccupation of our times. The most effective means for escaping the invidious distinctions of race is education.
Thus we have willingly embraced our confrontations in full recognition of what we were getting ourselves into and recognizing too that many of us would be damaged by the brutal realities of racial conflict on campus. We have done it because we believe it to be unavoidable and morally necessary. Universities must lead the way in the liquidation of America's minority problems and we must be prepared to pay a price for doing so. Thus. We have not been content merely to permit the most qualified minority students to enter universities. We have gone out to find new kinds of students and new faculty who would help desensitize us to the needs and aspirations of minorities. We immediately encountered all of the problems that such recruiting efforts suggest. We found ourselves forced to redefine our traditional modes of selection. To redefine requirements for admission. To develop
new concepts of learning and new modes of study. Often we had to make such determinations under the stress of actual or threatened conflict. Many political critics have taken the position that such efforts that redefining our standards so as to incorporate and educate substantially increased numbers of minority students have in fact. Diluted our educational institutions and demeaned our degrees. It is certainly too early to assess gains against losses. But I think it likely. That our earlier single minded concentration on excellence has been slipping as we have been forced to face up to these problems. That's we are changing in the direction of egalitarianism and away from elitism. How much of it is still too early to say to avoid serious damage. We must broaden our educational institutions not contract them. We can no
longer abstract ourselves from minority concerns. The challenge we face is the maintenance of excellence as we seek to broaden. Higher education and access to it in the next decade. It is not going to be easy. If we want to do that in fact rather than with soothing platitudes. You have been listening to an address delivered before the Economic Club of Detroit by the new president of Columbia University in New York City Dr. William J McGill. He is the 16th president and assume the post September of 1978 and we are a special of the week thanks to the Economic Club of Detroit for the recording of these remarks. This is m e r the national educational radio network.
Special of the week
Issue 18-71 William J. McGill
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Chicago: “Special of the week; Issue 18-71 William J. McGill,” 1971-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 23, 2024,
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