New book asks: Where did things go wrong at WSU?

Did you know that the Wright State University administration once set up a bungee jump near the campus buildings, scrapping it when it didn’t make enough money (at $69 per jump)? Or that the administration once developed a plan to reconfigure the campus by demolishing and replacing a number of campus buildings, including the Creative Arts Center (also scrapped)?

Those boondoggles represent mere froth on the latte compared to the myriad revelations about Wright State in particular and the state of higher education in general contained in the provocative new book “Acanemia: A Memoir of Life in the Halls of the Higher Learning” (Inkwater Press, 2017) by native Daytonian Lawrence Hussman, who helped found the school in 1967 and has plenty to say about dreams gone awry, from the university’s idealistic beginning up to the scandal-ridden present.

Among the numerous shortcomings of higher education, Hussman considers corporate-style top-down management the cardinal sin.

Time and again, autocratic administrators and boards composed mostly of businessmen ignore faculty who, to his mind, always know better how to best serve students and taxpayers. Hussman details administrators’ (and their boards’) obsessive focus on athletics over academics and favoritism toward technical and scientific fields over the humanities. The pursuit of truth, not jobs and careers, should be the real mission of universities, the author maintains.

Daytonians will share Hussman’s pain when they learn how the “experiment in excellence” could’ve failed so often to live up to the ideals of its originators. He lays a lot of blame on the missteps of three of the six presidents, especially outsiders chosen after national searches. Hussman asserts that promoting from within almost always produces better top administrators than recruiting from without.

“Acanemia”’s last 30 pages detail the scandals and administrative mistakes that frittered away millions of dollars, reputation and goodwill during President Number Six’s tenure, such as the Great Debate of 2016 fiasco and the H-1 immigration law violations that, two years later, are still under investigation. Thus, at a time when Wright State should be celebrating its 50th anniversary with pride, there is much cause for mourning and outrage.

Hussman makes the solution obvious: reverse the corporatization and privatization of our public colleges and involve faculty to a much higher degree. One sign of hope, he suggests, was the birth, in 1998, of a faculty union with meaningful membership and affiliation with the American Association of University Professors. Hopefully, the faculty now has the voice they’ve lacked for so long.

This well-written memoir is actually three books in one. Along with his critique of higher ed, Hussman includes his own academic coming of age story as well as a travelogue of his post-retirement teaching career in Poland and Portugal. These personal stories provide a lot of comic relief to his indictment of universities. It’s obvious that the author loved — and still loves — the institution to which he devoted nearly three decades of his life and which all of us in the Miami Valley and beyond have a stake in preserving.

Things at Wright State seem to be finally on the upswing if we believe the words of new president Cheryl B. Schrader in a Dayton Daily News article of Aug. 9, 2017 (“In 2016, WSU saved more than expected”): “We cannot and will not overspend the FY 18 budget. … The trials of the last few years really (are) a stark wake-up call to the institution.” I’m sure we all join Lawrence Hussman in hoping so.

Ed Davis is a writer and teacher who lives in Yellow Springs.

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