The various distinctions that institutions of higher education like to draw between themselves are sometimes important and sometimes true (not necessarily both at once). And sometimes those distinctions hold some weight outside of higher education, among prospective students and their parents, or in wider public domains.
But just as often “professors” are the same everywhere in the public imagination, and “universities” are more or less one big lump that spans from Harvard to community colleges. So the policies of administrators and the actions of faculty in any given institution can end up having a general effect on everyone in the profession.
Which is why I care more than I should about the story of a journalism student at SUNY Oswego who was the target of severe punitive action by the Oswego administration for what was essentially a bungled class assignment. As reported by Gawker off of documents from the free-speech organization FIRE, the student was asked to write “a profile on a public figure”. He decided to write about the Oswego hockey coach and reached out via email to several of the coaches of other teams in the division, handling the initial contact badly in several ways.
FIRE is more interested in the free-speech side of the case, I think. What I think matters is what it says about how Oswego’s administration sees education, its alleged reason for existing.
Looking at it as a teacher, I see three things that I’d mark down and try to teach the student after seeing this assignment or hearing about how he was going about it. First, he misidentified himself by implying he was doing the profile for the public affairs office, where he was interning, and as he found, the consequences of a misidentification can be fairly serious for the credibility of the writer and the completion of a story assignment. Second, he should have called rather than contacted via email, for a host of reasons. Third, he was clumsy in the way that he tried to signal that he wasn’t just writing a puff piece.
But that’s why students pay tuition and attend classes and do assignments: to be taught how to do it right. The Oswego administration decided instead that the ego of their hockey coach or the inviolability of their administrative demeanor or something else was far more important than teaching students.
It’s easy to dismiss this as one institution doing it wrong–basically, the “It’s Chinatown, Jake” approach to witnessing harm being done. But this sort of story ends up affecting us all in two ways. First, feeding the cynical fear of a generation that higher education is just rent-seeking, a credentials factory. Second, it is precisely this kind of clumsiness that is going to help even the weakest versions of online education make the case that what large universities offer is at a minimum no better than the wholly online product and is many cases superior, because at least there’s none of this kind of nonsense going on.