December 30, 2020

UVm’s ROI

On December 2nd, the University of Vermont announced that it would cut 27 academic programs from the College of Arts and Sciences. From The Burlington Free Press:

The University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Sciences would take a major hit to help the institution rebound from its $8.6 million deficit… a proposal to cut low-enrollment academic programs, all contained in the arts and sciences. In all, programs cut could include 12 of the 56 majors, 11 of the 63 minors and four of the ten master’s degree programs.1See … Continue reading

Among the departments that will be eliminated are Classics and German.

~

Middlebury, not the University of Vermont (UVm), was my first choice.

During her freshman year at George Washington University, my sister Courtenay had a roommate from Boston, Lenore, whose sister, with her husband, ran a restaurant in a small Vermont town called Middlebury; Mister Up’s was the name of the restaurant. One year after Christmas, Courtenay went on a skiing vacation with Lenore to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, and she liked it so much, for the next five or so Christmases, me, Courtenay, Keith, and assorted friends, would ski for a week there.

When it came time to think about colleges, I applied to no schools in Virginia, or anywhere nearby. I was thinking about Middlebury, not so much the school, but the ski area, all those good restaurants, all the fun we had there—that had not happened in Virginia. Moreover, I had been at St. Stephen’s for nine years, with about ten or fifteen of the same group of guys, from fourth grade through graduation. In many ways it was a wonderful experience, but I was ready for a change, I wanted to get away. There was, however, one problem: a classmate, Ricky Peterson, was also applying to Middlebury. What were the odds that two boys from the same small prep-school in northern Virginia would apply to the same small, obscure private liberal arts college, and both get in? I don’t know how much difference there was between us academically, but Ricky had an edge: his parents had gone to Middlebury; my father went to West Point, my mother went to Baylor. Ricky got in, I didn’t.

In hindsight it was better this way. St. Stephen’s had been a small private school, where everyone knew everyone; Middlebury would have a lot like that. UVm was public, much bigger, a larger pool for me to swim or sink in (I did both). And I couldn’t be mad at Ricky – he was the nicest guy, impossible to dislike.

In hindsight, I really should have gone further: California, Chile, New Zealand.

~

A breakout by subject and number of classes I took:

Anthropology 2
Biology 1
Calculus 2
Chemistry 2
Etymology (Classics Department) 1
Computer Science 1
English (literature) 2
German 14
History 15
Latin 2
Political Science 1

As in any normal distribution, a few classes were bad, most average, and a few exceptional. I majored in history, and I try to think back to why. In high school I had several very good history teachers, and I was somewhat inspired by them.2For those who were there, Jim Osuna for … Continue reading But also, I was interested in a wide variety of things, curious about the world, and every discipline—biology, physics, literature, music, botany—has its own history. More than just dates and events, history seemed a way to learn about a lot of things.

Yet of the fifteen classes I took in history, only one was very good. Beyond the history department, the most memorable classes were in two of the departments that will be eliminated: German and Classics.

~

Freshman year, 8:00 A.M, five days a week: German 1. As it happened, my dorm was the furthest possible distance from the main campus. The professor was David Scrase: English, but not the annoying kind, not insular, more Continental. He wore tweed coats and clogs and drove a Peugeot 504. His class was hell, it was wonderful.

He must have noticed my generally confused look, a furrowed forehead during most of the classes, because as much as possible, he’d act out what he was asking me, so as to give this mouth breather a chance.

Herr Scrase: “Blake, Stehen Sie bitte auf.” [He mimics the act of standing up.]
I stand up.
“Blake, Gehen Sie zum Fenster.” [He walks over the window.]
I walk over to the window.
“Machen Sie das Fenster auf.” [He makes the motion of opening a window.]
I open the window.

With it’s long words, placement of verbs at the end of sentences, and at times difficult pronunciations (ö is actually a pictogram of how your lips need to form and wrinkle to say this very letter), German was a dense forest, difficult, my progress was always slow. What made it worse were the students who had taken German all through high school, perhaps had a German parent, and now were taking German 1 for an easy A. Arschlochs! Me? I had only a little bit of Latin in high school, and was taking German because of a wonderful, not well remembered drunken in Innsbruck in the summer of 1980; on such experiences we make key decisions.

That first semester of German came to a messy end. That winter, the night before my very first German final, fried clams were served in the dining hall. About 2:00 A.M. I sat up in bed, paused a moment, then barfed at about 400 psi all over my bed. I cleaned up, then dragged my linens down to the basement washing machines, and greeted the cold, snowy dawn feeling like shit. I called Professor Scrase from one of two phones on our dorm floor, and rescheduled the final.

Next semester I started German 2.

But for all that difficulty, studying German cracked open something in my brain, in my psyche: speaking these funny, long words, and it making sense to some set of people, sometimes, was a new experience, quite different. Expressions or concepts unavailable in English, once grasped, were available to German speakers. There were dimensions and possibilities that had not existed before. This feeling continued in varying degrees throughout the rest of my university German studies—Heine, Schiller, Rilke, Hofmannstahl, Goethe, Kunze— yet I still feel most strongly that first whack of German 1.

~

I took only three classes from the Classics department, and I wish I had taken more. In the winter of 1982, I took a Latin grammar review class taught by Professor Davison; she was an old school task master: in addition to our readings, there were endless drills conjugating verbs, declining nouns, all persons, numbers, tenses, cases, active and passive, the ablative absolute, and extemporaneous translation.

Yet like swimming laps in the pool or working through a set of dead-lifts, there was an old school, grinding satisfaction to Professor Davison’s class. No fancy educational theories at work here, just study, memorize, understand, remember, apply, then repeat.

The next semester I read Vergil’s Aeneid, taught by Z. Phillip Ambrose, a sort of Renaissance dude: classicist, he spoke excellent German, and ran a bookstore in town. He was one of those professors who was sincerely interested in his students, wanted them to succeed, and believed everybody, everybody, should study Latin.

Professor Ambrose required us to memorize the opening of the Aeneid, then at some point during the semester recite it in class. I’d been down this road before, when in high school, Mr. Wills required us to memorize the first thirty lines (or so) of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Today this seems hopelessly archaic, like looking up answers in logarithm tables. And yet…today I can still recite, mostly, Vergil or Chaucer, but I’ve noticed that pure memorization comes harder after, say, age twenty-five.

One day in class I was asked to translate the following from Book IV of the Aeneid. Aeneas has left Troy, and has a layover in Carthage with Dido, until the gods send him on to Italy. Dido is in love with Aeneas:

Habes quod petisti tota mente: Dido amans, ardet, taxitque furorem per ossa.

The first clause I got: You have what you desire with all your mind. [Dido’s love for Aeneas].

Next I managed Dido amans in to Dido, loving, but then got stuck at ardet. Professor Ambrose let about five seconds go by, then said, “Hmmm, haven’t you ever been in love?”

High school seniors and college sophomores might have something in common. I’d once seen a t-shirt that said ‘Go to hell world, I’m a senior.’ It’s a bit arrogant, because you really still don’t know anything, but you may be entitled to feel a bit of pride of having made it through high school. I think it’s similar after your first year in college. My freshman year had been pretty rough, but having made it through, by that second year, I was feeling pretty confident, like I’d done a thing or two.

So when Professor Ambrose if I’d ever been in love, I felt a sophomore’s naive arrogance: how can you possibly ask someone as worldly and experienced as me that question? I replied I had been in love.

“Well then, you must have felt the same thing as Dido felt. Burning, to be on fire. From the verb ardeo.”

There was some sniggering from the other students. I said uh-huh, right, mm, of course, trying to imply that if I had had just another moment, I would have gotten that damn ardet. Best to wrap up as quickly as possible: Dido, burning, feels the passion in her bones.

It was one of those piercing moments of insight and learning and humor, all at the same time. There would be other moments like this throughout the semester, but this one, Dido amans, ardet, stuck with me. Ardeo – won’t be forgetting that one, ever.

Latin can be hard, was hard, but Professor Ambrose was one of those who made you interested in the work, made you want to excel.

~

It was my second to last semester: in the Fall of 1984 I took a seminar on the history of revolutions. The professor was Robert V. Daniels, a leading scholar on the USSR, one of those who today might end up at a think tank, but he was devoted to both teaching and research. The class was a genuine seminar format, about eight students sitting around a table, focused on the one topic.

The title of the seminar seemed simple enough, but the subject matter was not. How alike, how different, was France in 1789 from America in 1776 from several European countries in 1848, China in 1948, Russia in 1917 and again in 1991, and so on. What was a revolution? The movement that resulted in the creation of the United States was really more a secession than a revolution: no army marched on London and replaced the monarchy. What about separatist movements, those groups that wish to break away and form their own political entity?

The students were intelligent, the discussions and readings interesting. But what made this class all the better was that on the very first day, Professor Daniels stated that in one week we would need to submit topics for our terms papers, then, even worse, that the terms paper would be due by mid-October. I found the announcement initially depressing: papers were usually worked on for the entire semester, then handed in right before going on vacation. In addition, I had only recently returned from a year in Germany, and had stayed in Germany for as long as possible, waiting until the very last minute to return to America, unpack and organize things in Virginia, before returning to Vermont; I was hoping to take it easy for a few weeks, ease into the semester.

But there was a method to his madness: Professor Daniels explained that by finishing the papers mid-term, that gave him time to review and discuss the work with the student, this gave the student the opportunity to revise the work, make it better, to learn. Simply writing and handing in a paper at semester’s end was useful, but much better was his process of review and revision—this helped the student to write a better paper, to understand the material better, to learn.

It worked. My topic was an analysis of the roles of students versus workers in three revolutions (the paper is in storage), and sometime in October I got back a heavily commented document: good, needs development, why? sources? explain, weak, nice, see the writings by X, and so on. From mid-October until about the third week in December I worked on that paper, and it was one of those rare times in my formal education that I wanted to write something, that I wanted to spend time on the topic, not just to get it done, but to make it good.

A lot of my history education had been survey classes: history of Egypt, history of Greece, history of Rome, Norway 200 B.C – 1971 A.D., Albania Today, and so on. I suppose these were necessary to gain a rudimentary familiarity with the field and material, along with the usual exams, maybe once in a while writing a ten or fifteen page paper. Only Professor Daniel’s seminar was exceptional: not only were we learning about a particular topic, but also about the process of research, writing, and revising.

~

Here and there in other departments, were a few surprises. One spring semester, I took PolySci 51, International Relations. The first day of class I was surprised by the number of students in the class; it wasn’t a lecture (e.g. 300 people), but rather just a normal thirty person class, although there were about sixty students in and around the room. It turned out both the professor, James Pacy, and this particular class, were very popular, and it was always over-subscribed; I was lucky to get in. And it was good. The text was Hans Morganthau’s Politics Among Nations, a readable, interesting book (I still have it). In addition to whatever historical material might have been useful for the class, that Spring, 1982, Professor Pacy also worked into his lectures was going on in the world: Britain went to war with Argentina over some islands in the south Atlantic, Solidarity in Poland, and the Soviet Union, which after Brezhnev would quickly go through several leaders, until Gorbechov.

Other glimmers and delights: being introduced to Anna Karenina in Professor Littleton Long’s world literature class; two semesters of college calculus, which while not great at (always B’s), I enjoyed; an etymology class taught by Professor Rodgers, she was eccentric and funny teaching us that the Farsi word for snow sounded like ‘barf’ and that the American Heritage Dictionary has the best etymologies.

~

Not on the chopping block, not taking a hit to help with the deficit, were any aspect of the university’s sports programs. Below is a list of the sports facilities. Descriptions from the university are in italics.

  1. Archie Post Athletic Complex
  2. Vermont Athletic Performance Center: 11,000 square feet: the state-of-the-art complex features eight Olympic platforms, 19 working stations, a 30-yard turf sprint track, as well as, ample room for core strengthening activities.
  3. Forbush Natatorium for women’s swimming and diving.
  4. Frank H. Livak Track and Field Facility
  5. Gardner-Collins Indoor Track: the indoor track was renovated in 1998 to include two running tracks and three multi-purpose courts which can be used for a variety of uses, among them physical education classes, intramural and club sports activities, and practice for UVM’s varsity athletic teams.
  6. Gucciardi Fitness Center: The recreation and fitness center is an integral part of the university’s plan to create a healthy community for its students, faculty and staff.
  7. Gutterson Fieldhouse (hockey rink). The website notes that it is noisy and usually filled to capacity
  8. Vermont Indoor Turf Facility (with 1,064 panels of Nexxfield XGen.E2 turf). This ensures that the soccer and lacrosse teams can train throughout the winter.
  9. Moulton Winder Field
  10. Patrick Gymnasium. The gym is just one part of the vast University of Vermont athletic complex. Within the gymnasium is the Student-Athlete Success Center: With wireless internet, 12 desktop computer work stations and a printer, student-athletes are provided a quiet place to study in and around their class breaks, practice times and conditioning sessions. Academic support staff are available throughout the day to discuss academic matters such as class schedules, major selection, tutor options and degree requirements. Just as long as you aren’t studying Gemans or Classics.

In addition, there are construction projects underway for the Tarrant Center and the Davis Reacreation and Wellness Center, which is the largest athletics/recreational facility project in the history of UVM. According to the Burlington Free Press, the Tarrant Center will cost $95,000,000.

There’s a lot of parking structures, too.

~

College sports, unlike college academics, are big business. What is the role of sports, what is the business of sports, when it is a part of an institution of higher learning? In some ways the European model has merit, where sports are decoupled from the education system. What if Vermont jettisoned its ski team, Alabama gave up football, what if we got rid of the ACC?

Universities are for profit businesses first, and whatever else second. Like a department store, they offer a variety of wares: academics for some, athletics for others, young adult baby sitting as a place to be parked for a few years before entering the workforce, employment for many, economic benefits to their communities. And if a product does not sell well, then it is removed from inventory and replaced with something that sells.

Less so is a university a place for only an education, to learn purely for the sake of learning; increasingly it is a place for career training. The point of my education was simply education, with literally no thought on my part to any future professional application. Matthew Crawford captures nicely the mutated role of the university as a place of learning versus an institution for assimilation into society:

Educational institutions find themselves located in a hierarchy of their own, forced to compete with other institutions for position in order to enhance the marketability of their credentials to socially mobile consumers. The result is a gowning emphasis on producing selective symbolic distinctions rather than shared substantive accomplishments. That is, what matters is your rank among your peers; it matters not if the whole lot of you are ignorant. When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation if knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: ‘All human beings by nature desire to know.’ Students become intellectually disengaged.3Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class As … Continue reading

Maybe students do become intellectually disengaged, maybe they now have a different set of expectations. I was lucky enough to have studied something considered impractical, yet was able to have a career in high tech companies. A lot of it was timing; I doubt I could pursue the same path today and have a similar professional outcome.

~

The university’s Dean Bill Falls stated that a data-informed process was used in deciding what programs to cut. In writing about the cuts at The New York Review of Books, Dan Chiasson notes the irony of attempts to quantify the humanities:

The summoning of data to determine which areas of humanistic inquiry should be cut forever from a university suggests an irony that a liberal arts student would appreciate. “Data” seem to many in higher education to be unassailable: they tend to end the conversation. Yet the question with data is always how their parameters have been set by living, inevitably interested, actual humans, and how they are then, in turn, expressed in narrative form. What comes out depends very much on what was put in. In the case of UVM, the data reflect a very circumscribed evaluation of a program’s worth based solely on a narrow band of its enrollment figures, and over a very limited period of time, three years. And the data may have measured performance in programs that had been disadvantaged by the university. If I collect data on an unplugged toaster, they will show no activity during the period during which its cord dangled down from the counter.4Dan Chiasson, ‘College Cuts in the … Continue reading

Who is more important: a lacrosse coach versus a Latin professor, and should they even work for the same institution? What has more merit: a goal scored against a team or the learning of the pluperfect tense? What is the value of knowing what ardeo means versus EBITA? Again Chiasson: what can’t be measured can’t be considered.

I don’t think everyone should learn Latin or German, although I think some exposure to some humanities can benefit many, regardless of future studies; as Chiasson notes, Dr. Anthony Fauci was a classics major. But it’s shame that those who want to will have to look elsewhere.

References

References
1 See https://eu.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2020/12/03/uvm-proposals-cut-12-majors-other-programs-respond-deficit/3806864001/
2 For those who were there, Jim Osuna for World History and Modern European History, and Dr. Norris for A.P. History.
3 Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class As Soulcraft (The Penguin Press, 2009), p. 146-147.
4 Dan Chiasson, ‘College Cuts in the Green Mountain State’, The New York Review of Books, Volume LXVII, Number 20, 17 December 2020.

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  1. 6 years ago, I took Bee (then in 10th grade) on a weeklong CA college tour during Spring break, driving 1000 miles from SF to Chico then all the way down 101 and 5, ending in San Diego (to, but not across, the US/MX border). Saw many schools: St Mary’s, Chico, Davis, CSUMB, SLO, UCSB, CSUCI, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, Disneyland :), UCSD, CSUSD. A few were formal tours, most were 2-hour walkarounds. My goal was (clearly) quantity: to have her learn that most colleges were very similar, and that once you’ve done one formal tour you’ve done them all.
    It was successful: Bee was interested in Marymount, but upon visiting was able to see that it’s very small and right next to LAX, and that it wasn’t for her. (East coast kids are easily enticed by a palm trees in a brochure).
    The major thing that *I* took away from it was how schools now market themselves. Of the three formal tours we took, *ALL* did the same thing: walk around, see some buildings, briefly see a dorm room, then end up at the school’s brand-new fitness complex. Schools have spent zillions on these: huge buildings with basketball courts, exercycles, running tracks, indoor/outdoor pools, All with fancy architecture, curved roofs, glass walls. Most include health-food-oriented cafes. And it works: Bee would walk thru the early part of the tour with mild interest, then once we hit the health facility her eyes would light up.
    My point being: a super-fancy gym is a huge recruiting tool, and colleges are now locked in an arms race. The goal is to create/present a stunning place where prospective students imagine themselves hanging out, in skin-tight clothes, clutching their hydroflasks, socializing with their peers. The superficiality of it is stunning, but it’s incredibly effective. Which is precisely why UVM will pour their very last dollar into the Tarrant and Davis facilities.

    1. You’re quite right. In talking about this essay with Annie, she noted that college sports, and scholarships, are a path for many (some) to attend college, many who otherwise would not. I hadn’t thought about that, nor your good point about these facilities being recruiting tools. So within the current system, they must compete in the same way. How many students are attracted to, could afford, would be suited to, and benefit from, someplace like St. John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, a place I quite admire, a freak within the collegiate system?

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