I want to alert you to what I believe is an important event going on at the University of Tennessee at Martin: the search for a Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (VCAA). To many this may seem of little concern but I want to insist that the selection of a VCAA has the greatest ramifications for academic life at UTM and thus for the culture of West Tennessee.
I suspect that we will be able to throw most of the leading candidates for the position into a box labeled “more of the same.” Unfortunately, we cannot afford, on this campus, or in West Tennessee, “more of the same” because business as usual can only produce the same crippling economic, cultural, and spiritual climate in which we live right now, can only intensify the crisis we find ourselves in.
I know I make a bold claim here – that an academic position that most students and community members are not even aware of – the VCAA – can have such an outsize influence not only on the campus but in our entire region. Nevertheless, education plays so fundamental a role in a society that whatever mission leading educators determine to follow shapes the whole of our society. If, as is increasingly true today, leading educators see “education” principally as a means of fitting young people into an existing social order, then we will shape millions of young people into unquestioning and obedient men and women, people who will live out their lives in pursuit of dollars that most of them will never have enough of. The proof? Look at the society in which we live.
But a different vision of education is possible, a vision that sees education as a means to a much higher end, a vision that centers on helping us all understand the meaning and beauty and power of our lives.
Here is where the importance of the VCAA lies. The “more of the same” VCAA will carry out the same tired, and spiritually deadening assembly line education that has become the rule in American society today. In contrast, we need our VCAA to lead in creating a genuine culture of learning on the UTM campus. We predicate this culture of learning on the truth that the real function of all education, higher education in particular, is to facilitate the growth of self-aware human beings, people who understand who they are, and what their relation is to society, to the world, and to the universe.
Currently, this positive vision of education is under all-out assault. We see the product of this assault on k-12 education every day in our classrooms where the billionaire foundation-funded-focus on a Common Core and on teaching to the test has largely succeeded in crushing almost all student curiosity. Far too many of our students sit in math, science, and humanities classes simply because these classes are hoops to be jumped through. We see this assault, too, in higher education, on multiple levels: in the ever-rising cost of tuition, which makes it mandatory for students to focus in on career paths, go deeply into debt, and work long hours each week to help pay for their education, making real study and real thought difficult to impossible. We see it in the arguments for higher education as the means to make us “competitive” in the globalized economy of the twenty-first century. We see it, most recently on the UTM campus, in the frenzy and fear generated around the need to create a “culture of assessment.”
The danger of this assault, the danger of throwing out into society each year tens of thousands of students unable to understand themselves or their place in society, the threat posed by this assault is a threat to democratic life itself. We cannot have a democracy if all we are doing is training our students to jump through hoops.
The VCAA must be our champion – must create a culture of learning on this campus which attracts young people to UTM not because they believe that they will get a better job for coming here, but will come here because they know that in coming here they will become better, more thoughtful, more compassionate human beings, human beings capable of being good, responsible citizens of their communities and their country.
We don’t need an administrator. We need a passionate leader who will bring intellectual vitality and a love of truth and beauty to this institution, and to West Tennessee as a whole.