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American Impressions, Chapter 26: North Carolina
Hire Ed: The State of Academe

It was one of those hot fall Carolina days when the October sun is in an August mood and everything beneath it studies lethargy. I was soaking waist-deep in the pool at my apartment complex, cutting class, and reading a new book called “The Closing of the American Mind.”

At the time—this was 12 years ago—the book wasn’t yet the phenomenon it became, selling half a million copies in hardback after an initial printing of 10,000. From poolside, the book was still just a rant, sometimes reasoned but often just loud, by an obscure University of Chicago professor until then known mostly among footnote lovers. His name was Allan Bloom (he died in 1992), and although he was trying to say that the American university had lost its soul, he was blaming, among other things, contraceptive pills, all kinds of feminists, blacks who didn’t behave, professors who wanted to teach more than Homer and Plato, affirmative action, rock music, and most of all, the Sixties.

But lost among Bloom’s anti-democratic rants were some good arguments about the growing irrelevance of higher education as a guiding and a moral force in American life. Whatever its failings, the book touched a nerve. It sat atop the New York Times bestsellers list for six months. It became the manifesto that gave conservatives in the sclerotic days of the Reagan Administration the ammo to go after the universities, the one bastion of liberalism that had eluded their revolution until then. With Bloom’s help, the “culture war” had replaced the Cold War as ideologues’ favorite cause.

I returned to Chapel Hill in June to see how the university had weathered its corner of the battle. It was good to see that as wars go, this one has been the least lethal, and occasionally has managed to be useful. As always, reports of the universities’ demise have been exaggerated, but at a price.

Despite its failings, I’ve always thought that the American system of higher education is one of the nation’s greatest treasures. If there was one place where I could touch “this thing we call freedom,” as E.B. White put it, “this dangerous and beautiful and sublime being who restores and supplies us all,” it was at the university. I’d felt it as an undergraduate, when I was left to make my own way. I was not prepared for the discovery that graduate school was more like a plantation. Students were the slaves, professors the masters, and the whole thing had a lot more to do with respecting turfs and egos than pursuing knowledge. Original thought was as scarce as professors who could write something anyone else would want to read.

That was also the reason universities seemed increasingly detached from the world around them, haughty and easy targets for ideologues. Allan Bloom connected too many dots to blame lower standards on the Sixties—he was desperate for a scapegoat and couldn’t just blame democracy—but he meant well. He was a late believer in John Henry Newman’s idea of the university, where knowledge is pursued for its own sake. He simply overlooked the fact that the 19 th century had passed and that higher education did not belong exclusively to aristocrats anymore.

The conservative ideologues who seized on his book to launch their assault on higher education did not mean well. They missed the days when universities were the intellectual club-house of Anglo-Saxon male power, when the Great Books went straight from Homer to Faulkner without multicultural and multisexual detours along the way. They didn’t quite get the fact that universities naturally breed inquiry and controversy. They’d reclaim the schools from the misguided masses. They had help. Their collaborators were the allegedly liberal professor-peddlers of such academic currents as queer theory and deconstruction and other post-modern equivalents of the Ebola virus, which no one in their right mind understood and no one wanted to have anything to do with, except academics.

In a country where anti-intellectualism is as chilling as the Jet Stream, the public was only too willing to believe that the ivory tower could use some deconstruction of its own. If UNC is an example, universities are good, tame places that play well with others these days. A bit too well.

While UNC acting Chancellor William McCoy was meeting with university faculty last April 16, a group of students interrupted by silently parading in the room and dropping a set of demands in front of McCoy. The students wanted the university to disclose the location of Nike’s sweatshops; to press for living wages for sweatshop workers (“living wage” was not defined); and to monitor their working conditions. Like many universities, UNC contracts its share of the $2.5 billion college-apparel business. For several days, a group of 70 students took turns in a round-the-clock sit-in at South Building, the administration’s headquarters, until the chancellor agreed to the demands.

”None of the demands were anything that wasn’t well researched,” says UNC Student Body President Nicholas Heinke. “It wasn’t a bunch of whining students looking for a cause. It was one of the most well-done events I’ve ever seen.”

But it wasn’t exactly a cause so much as a concern, and 70 students out of a student body of 24,000 wasn’t exactly demonstration caliber. It looked that way only because two dozen other universities across the country, including Duke, Yale and Harvard, staged similar sit-ins and added demands for higher wages for campus janitors and dining hall workers. The New York Times portrayed it as “the biggest wave of campus activism since the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1980s.”

But there’d been no activism since the early ‘80s, and the nature of the April sit-ins was usually collegial. No one was arrested, no one was criticized, and administrators, some of whom had been demonstrators in their college years, at times sided with students vocally and formally. So when the Utne Reader, the alternative bi-monthly, ranks its top-10 most activist campuses every year, always placing UNC among them, it does so mostly out of nostalgia, not recognizing that activism has been redefined into a clubbish, self-affirming activity like the Peach Vegetarian Club or Tar Heels for Christ, only with top evening news exposure.

Of course, the latent controls on the student population are more rigid, too. To nobody’s protest, the UNC police chief (whose fiefdom is separate from Chapel Hill’s) has just spent $30,000 to acquire an arsenal of metal batons, 12-gauge shotguns, gas masks and helmets, and is deploying cops at permanent “substations” inside several student buildings. If disturbances break out, the National Guard won’t be necessary.

This is not to say that students must demonstrate in droves and get handcuffed to qualify as socially aware. The demonstrations of the Sixties were an anomaly, not a norm to live up to. But they sprang from a sense of idealism that is non-existent today. “The campus is fairly inactive because there’s a strong disillusionment with politics,” Heinke says. When he ran for office in the spring, his platform revolved around strictly housekeeping issues: parking, making registration easier, organizing freshman orientation more smoothly. His is not a rabble-rousing role anyway. But for a student body of 24,000 -- the proverbial leaders of tomorrow—to be so indifferent to issues slightly larger than parking is a disheartening preview of what’s to come when they do become leaders. (Their own campus is informally segregated by race and class, but no one is leading sit-ins over that.) “You can be proud of the facilities, you can be proud of achievements in research, but you can’t really be proud of how the university is affecting the daily lives of Tar Heels,” says Alvis Dunn, a friend I met 12 years ago when we were both in the History Department. He has just earned his doctorate. He teaches Latin American and North Carolina history at Guilford College and UNC, and will be teaching at Duke this fall. To Dunn, the university’s influence with the world around it has always depended on the sort of graduates it produced.

”In the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, to a lesser extent after that, the university produced mainly men who ran the state,” Dunn continues, referring to Frank Porter Graham, Terry Sanford and Kerr Scott, who took North Carolina out of its Old South coma by developing its infrastructure, its universities and the 6,800-acre Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, which is now home to 80 companies that employ 35,000. “If the university is going to produce men whose main concern is the bottom line, then that’s the kind of state we’ll have as opposed to a socially progressive state—a state that realizes that spending money on education is a good thing in and of itself, a state that’d be populated by people with open minds, people who might actually say the word ‘union’ out loud. People who’d look at the present state of race relations as not satisfactory. People who’ll look at poverty as not caused by just laziness. People who’ll look at the new immigration population of North Carolina as a challenge to build something better rather than a drain on established ways of living. Visionaries. It’s the university’s job to produce them, to arm them. If the university doesn’t do that, I don’t know what good it is.”

It’s been good as a job factory. Bloom wouldn’t be proud. His campuses have been tamed, but the MBA mentality he decried as a “great disaster . . . a way of insuring a lucrative living by the mere fact of a diploma that is not the mark of scholarly achievement,” has won the day. Higher education is itself a $200 billion-a-year economic engine of 550,000 professors and 14.2 million students, or “customers,” in today’s lingo. Universities are above all a business, and their magnet for money has given rise to one of the most significant civic development of the 1990s—the university town.

Many once-eccentric university villages make regular appearances on Best-Places-To-Live lists. These are not havens of free inquiry, of ingenuity, of controversy. They are as prim and predictable as the superstore-bookshops that rim them all, their ozonated air suffused with the smell of latte and the sounds of Mozart turned Muzak.

”Chapel Hill is a one-street village entirely surrounded by the University of North Carolina,” an article in the March 1941 Atlantic reads, where “professors’ wives, overalled tobacco farmers, and students in search of the makings of a midnight feed, shop from the same shelves” at the A&P, where “the shorn locks of freshmen and the thin gray hairs of village elders” mingle on the floors of barbershops, and where “the schizophrenic clothing stores (are) half rural and half collegiate.”

The university is now itself the village that is entirely surrounded by the city of Chapel Hill. The mingling has ended. The town requires a degree of wealth and youth to be enjoyed. Village elders are rare sights. Tobacco farmers have been banished to distant rural wards. The clothing stores are all Gap-like. The professors’ husbands are just as likely as the wives to be selecting the organic food stores’ produce. A Michael Jordan restaurant is opening soon on ritzy Franklin Street, within walking distance of Chapel Hill’s shard-sized ghetto. The Intimate Bookshop, once a signature, locally owned collection of creaky floors and epic reads from Gilgamesh to Stephen King, has given way to the chic scents of a Sephora boutique, where anorexic saleswomen in black chirp “Welcome to Sephora” or bark corporate warnings at would-be photographers of the displays of Guerlain and Clinique and Urban Decay merchandise.

But I’m beginning to sound Bloomy again, startled by change. I don’t mean to. Chapel Hill is a better place to live (if you can afford it) than it was 12 years ago (when it was more affordable). So must be the many places like it across the country, given their appearances on those quality-of-life lists. But Chapel Hill is no longer a university town so much as a town with a university, and I suspect the same is true for Madison, Ann Arbor and all the others. The difference reflects the changing role of the university in American life.

The culture wars have had their impact. Victories have been scored on both sides. Campuses are still among the most diverse and democratically vibrant places in the country. But they’re not quite setting the tone for change or providing the nation with any sort of collective moral compass. Universities were once their own reason for being, the sort of institutions that shaped their environment according to the caliber of graduates they produced and the vision they endowed them with.

Universities are now adjuncts—hired hands, really—in a larger picture that has a lot more to do with the bottom line mentality Alvis Dunn referred to, and Bloom feared. It is their collective $110 billion endowments they are protecting most. Aside from the hard sciences, which are thriving on piles of Nobels, this is not an age of intellectual innovation in the social sciences and the humanities. Students’ disillusionment with politics may have something to do with that dearth of new ideas. They still want to be revolutionaries, but not by wasting time on idealistic dead-ends. So they’ve learned to apply their dreams to the more tangible world of business.

The bumper stickers of a Jeep parked at Chapel Hill’s University Mall told the story. On the right side of the back bumper, a sticker read, Sixties-style: “SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM.” You could picture the Jeep owner in his younger days, bearded and sandaled and shouting glorious revolutionary obscenities at college elders. But the sticker is actually a catch-phrase of corporate seminars where “thinking outside the box” is now the suited, bottom-line version of the old chants. If the sticker leaves any doubt, the bumper sticker on the left—the familiar jingle of the Excel Corp.—exults in the new “paradigm”: “ASK ME HOW YOU CAN MAKE MONEY EVERY TIME SOMEONE PICKS UP THE PHONE.”


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NORTH CAROLINA IN BRIEF



Total area: 52,672 sq. miles (rank: 29)

Population (1997): 7,425,183 (rank: 11)

State capital: Raleigh

Economy: Technology, pharmaceuticals, education, agriculture

Nicknames & Motto: Tar Heel State; Old North State; To be rather than to seem.

Entered union: 12 th of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution, Nov. 21, 1789.

Notable facts: The University of North Carolina, the first state university in the nation, was chartered in 1789, the year of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but it remained an all-white, all-male school until the middle of this century. In fall 2000, it will again make history by becoming the first public university system in the nation to require all entering freshmen to own a lap-top—in effect doubling the first-year cost of attending the school.

North Carolina in quotes: “In North Carolina there are triads and triangles, but the troika of this state is an industrial belt that comes close to surpassing anything the industrial East or the Silicon Valley of California can offer. What one sees throughout the Tar Heel State’s Triad are matrixes of high-tech manufacturing firms producing the stuff of our daily lives. Gone is the old sooty, smoke-stacked image of mills and attendant poverty.”—From “The South,” by B.C. Hall and C.T. Wood (Scribner, 1995).

RESOURCES

Books:
* “The Closing of the American Mind,” by Allen Bloom, is still in print, in paperback (Touchstone Books, $13), so is “The Opening of the American Mind,” by Lawrence Levine (Beacon Press, $20), a critical response to Bloom’s attack on the academy.
* “Light on the Hill : A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” by William D. Snider (UNC Press, $29.95) is a less polemical, more historical look at UNC.

Web sites:
* The University of North Carolina: www.unc.edu

* University of Pennsylvania: Institute for Research on Higher Education: www.irhe.upenn.edu/irhe/

* National Center for Education Statistics: http://nces.ed.gov/

* North Carolina tourism: www.visitnc.com

 

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