The Cavalier Daily
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Rediscovering University's true priorities

DURING his 2000 State of the University speech, President John T. Casteen III relayed a quote by John Ciardi: "A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students." Casteen claims that's not what the University is now, and it's not where it's heading, yet many actions of this University have indicated precisely the opposite.

Rather than a treatise on the responsibility of the University to teach students, the speech was mere window dressing for big business 101. Such a statement of priorities is a sad indicator for an institution whose main purpose is to educate the next generation.

Casteen said we're a very "efficient" university. He really means we're poor but hiding it well. As Casteen pointed out in his speech, we spend between five and ten thousand dollars less per student than most of our competitors.

Also in his 2000 remarks, Casteen commends our superb faculty and discusses the obligation those faculty members have "with regard to personal instruction, [and] personal witness" to students. But the rest of his comments have nothing to do with students. He puts emphasis on rankings - scores that do not measure teaching, or how much students learn, but research, endowments and published faculty.

A year after he commended the quality of instruction here, one such published faculty member is a perfectly poignant example of this university's hypocrisy. The treatment handed Government Prof. James Sofka in recent months is appalling and completely contrary to everything for which this University says it stands. Here is a faculty member obviously well loved by his students. He is respected in his field and more than willing to donate extra time to the intellectual and emotional development of the young people in the Academical Village. He studies Jefferson. He plays chess on the Lawn and opens his office to everyone.

In return for his devotion to this University, his position is in effect being taken away and everyone from top to bottom is pointing fingers at each other, refusing to either take the blame or rectify the situation. Casteen, Provost Peter Lowe or even Dean of the College Melvin P. Leffler could correct this situation by rising above petty infighting and doing one gentlemanly duty - keeping a commitment to good teachers. They would not only be respecting their obligation to Sofka, but also to the students who attend not Ciardi's University, but Jefferson's Academical Village.

Though the spirit of that very place is barely spoken of in Casteen's 2000 speech, the physical buildings of the Academical Village got a brief nod. While our president was discussing the high-tech new library that will perfectly preserve rare books, Casteen neglected to mention the exceedingly low-tech conditions where we choose to preserve our even rarer valuables - our students and faculty. Those who live on north Grounds can stop reading now - they know not of the dusty basement offices and stifling classrooms of Cabell Hall, the insufferably loud window units in the few classrooms on central Grounds with air conditioning, the mad search for unbroken chairs in overcrowded classrooms. Casteen talks of a beautiful new library and refurbished admissions office - but he doesn't say if we can have class there. A year after these glowing words students are still hot, seatless and wondering why.

Casteen also mentioned that Pat Lampkin, the associate vice president for student affairs, will begin "in the near future" a working sabbatical to re-examine issues in student life. Apparently we are still waiting. In the meantime, an entire class will graduate feeling like they were paid more attention by Coach Pete Gillen than by their professors and the University's administration.

As he walked out of his speech onto the Lawn that night and again a year later, he was faced with the very symbols of the Academical Village. The Rotunda gleamed bright at the top of the Lawn, and the passageways in front of the pavilions glowed. Maybe he considered that more administrators live there now than professors; maybe he didn't. Maybe he looked down at the route students walk to stuffy packed classes; maybe he didn't. Maybe he realized he was a few feet away from a professor's office that will soon be packed, and several buildings crumbling at the seams.

Ladies and gentlemen, the heart of the Academical Village is strong, but what about that of its leadership? The next class of first years enters in the fall; those of us leaving hope they find a University living up to the high standards its recruitment literature sets. Perhaps their first State of the University speech won't have to pretend to care more about them than the almighty dollar.

(Emily Harding's column appears Wednesdays in the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at eharding @cavalierdaily.com.)

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