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Historically, higher education was something quite different from what it is today. Colleges and universities formed communities, communities whose members were not just commodities and data points but dignified human beings who benefitted richly from their experience together…

A question for parents and others who care about students: Do you think of your children as “commodities” and “data points?” Neither do we, but sadly, many colleges and universities increasingly do. A recent controversy at Mount St. Mary’s University, a small Catholic school in Maryland, highlights the growing “commodification” of education.

The president, Simon Newman, demoted a senior administrator and fired two faculty members (one of them a tenured professor) because they objected to his plan to weed out less-promising freshmen in the first few days of school.

Under Newman’s plan, faculty are expected to report freshmen grades to the administration within the first couple weeks of classes. But instead of offering assistance to freshmen who need it, those with poor grades are simply asked to leave the university. That may sound rather draconian—“We’ve given you ten days to prove yourself…”—but the motivation behind the plan is even more sinister. Universities are required to report their enrollments to the federal government by the twelfth class day each term, so any student scrubbed before that date would not count against the institution’s retention and graduation rates. Newman is not acting in the students’ best interests; he’s polishing his company’s quarterly numbers.

One would think a good college would seek to nurture and support its students, help them become better. Isn’t that the point of education, after all? As John Schwenker, writing in Minding the Campus, observes, Mount St. Mary’s was “supposed to be a community, a place where administrators aren’t bosses, students aren’t customers, and faculty aren’t employees.”

Mount St. Mary’s is by no means the only university to dehumanize its students. It has, unfortunately, become commonplace. I once sat in a meeting where a senior administrator referred to the university’s students as “data points.” I laughed audibly, but the scornful looks shot at me from around the table indicated he wasn’t joking.

Historically, higher education was something quite different from what it is today. Colleges and universities did form communities, communities whose members were not just commodities and data points but dignified human beings who benefitted richly from their experience together.

And there is no reason why they can’t continue to do that today. I know why Newman did what he did, given how government financial aid and grants–to which universities are too often addicted–are increasingly tied to the numbers he is trying to manipulate. But I would urge Mount St. Mary’s and countless schools like it to remember that their first task is to educate students.

Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (February 2018).

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