Michael Sovern

Trouble on the Campus: More than Just an Academic Question

VTR Date: May 20, 1990

Guest: Sovern, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael I. Sovern
Title: “Trouble on the Campus: More Than an Academic Question”
VTR: 5/20/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and today’s guest and I were both fortunate enough to have attended what we both still consider the best liberal arts college in the nation: Columbia College here in New York.

Only Michael Sovern had the wit and wisdom to go on to Columbia Law School, later becoming its Dean, and then, a decade ago, President of Columbia University itself.

But it’s not just old school ties that led me to ask Mr. Sovern back to The Open Mind (he had come here at the beginning of the 1980’s, just after becoming Columbia’s President.) Rather, I want to explore with him now issues that, of course, could have been raised then – after all, they’ve always been with us to some lesser or greater extent – but that as we enter the 1990’s seem to loom so much larger and to be so much more threatening to our national well-being .. issues such as racism and sexism and selfish individualism (rather than altruism or social activism) on the campus.

Indeed, these threats to the common good lead many to question whether America’s universities shouldn’t once again shield their students from their own irresponsibility, shouldn’t once again take on more of a protective, almost parental role for the very sake of these young men and women. Of course, acting “in loco parentis” used to be jokingly translated as “crazy like a parent.” Perhaps, however, events on too many campuses today indicate that it might well be crazy for educators not to reassume that long forsaken role.

So let me ask Mr. Sovern to share with us his by now rather well tutored Presidential view of some of these more pressing troubles on the campus. Not just the matter, Mike, of “in loco parentis,” but the things that you feel strongly about as trouble points.

SOVERN: Well, there are a number of them. You started with concerns about selfishness and unrest and racial disagreements, so why don’t I begin there. But I’d like to be sure to come back to some of the problems posed by changing public policy vis-à-vis universities. The … we are, of course, as we always have been, a microcosm of the larger society.

When universities were much less diverse, the kinds of stresses and strains that we see today we didn’t see then. The numbers, as I like to remember them are, at the turn of the century, roughly 4% of 18 year olds attended college. They were virtually all males, they were surely all White; indeed, they were mostly White Protestant Americans. Today roughly half of all 18 year olds attend college, and the diversity is glorious. They, in fact by now, obviously half and half men and women, at the University of California at Berkeley, Whites are a minority, with Asians sending almost as many students as Whites, and the African-Americans and then Hispanics sending substantial numbers. So that we have a rich mixture that, by its very nature, is bound to produce some tensions. When you remember that that mixture is composed of people from all over America, indeed, all over the world, each bringing family stereotypes, small town backgrounds, big city stresses, that we hold it together at all sometimes seems a little short of miraculous. And, in fact, the stresses, though manifest, have not been causing any place to fly apart. What they’ve done is to emphasize our obligation, our commitment to make a contribution because we are in some ways a controlled community, unlike the larger world, to create models for living together by diverse groups, and that effort, I think, works. That is to say, our graduates go, go into the world with a much greater appreciation of their fellows, not as great as we would like, and for the most part, I think, become forces of reason within the communities in which they later live.

HEFFNER: Well, you use the word “controlled,” and that brings us back to the question that I raise, and I raise it half facetiously, half not, whether it is not time to exercise the kinds of controls that actually the university world got rid of a generation ago.

SOVERN: I think we do much better by teaching than by commanding. We have an illustrative experience on the Columbia campus this past Spring … a Black student organization invited a speaker who had made anti-Semitic remarks, as reported in the press. It was exhilarating to see that no one in the Columbia community, though they detested the views expressed by this fellow, as reported in the press, asked that he not be allowed to come. They held very substantial demonstrations against his views … the event took place, there was not only no violence, there wasn’t even oral disruption. And I think that everyone, including the people who invited him in the first place, learned a great deal and will behave better in the future.

HEFFNER: That may be a tribute to Columbia. I like to think that. But certainly it’s true that around the rest of the country there have been instances in which that kind of benign approach to differences has not prevailed.

SOVERN: We have to keep working towards it. It is, as I need hardly tell you, not a perfect world inside or outside the university, and that the effort fails sometimes is just another reason why we should keep trying.

HEFFNER: What do you do with, or how can you deal with … you say “not in an authoritarian way,” but “in a teaching way,” how do you deal with students who feel that their voices are not heard; that their most profound convictions have not moved the Administration, let alone the world?.

SOVERN: The direct way is to be sure that at some point they’re in conversation with a faculty member or Administrator with whom they feel sympathetic and whom they regard as sympathetic to them. Then it is possible to communicate the message that the failure to adopt your views doesn’t mean that they haven’t been heard. That the absence of action … “you do not command, you have an opportunity to persuade,” and if the student’s point of view is not persuasive, then they have to understand that that doesn’t mean that they’ve been suppressed; they simply have failed to win the argument. And for the most part, with very few exceptions today, we succeed in underscoring the difference between being heard and being obeyed.

HEFFNER: Of course, the complaint of so many students these days is that there are not the bodies around on the campuses … maybe again not true of Columbia, but I’ve heard many of my own students say, “it’s so difficult to reach out and touch a faculty member … they’re not there.”

SOVERN: Well, if, if by that you’re referring to the scarcity of minority faculty on college/university campuses, you’re absolutely right. The numbers are pitiful, and it seems to me to be one of the key priority items for universities and for government policy to address, or your successor and mine will be sitting here 20 years from now having this same conversation. We’ve made some progress. Indeed, in many ranks of our students we’ve made a lot of progress in opening America’s higher education to students of all minorities. In the faculty ranks, the numbers are poor, and one measure of it is that Columbia which proudly claims … not so proudly, but Columbia can claim 4% African-American faculty, is the leader among our peer institutions.

That’s a very low number, a very small proportion. It seems to me that what we’ve got to do is deepen and broaden the pool of talent, so that at Columbia, for example, we now have a program made possible by a very large gift from John Kluge, that permits us, first of all, to support minority students in college; second, to make the research opportunities available to them during summers so that they acquire a taste for the excitement of what graduate education is all about. Then a loan “forgiveness” program if they choose to go on to graduate school and still further “forgiveness” if they achieve the Ph.D. That model is, I am happy to say, being emulated in a number of institutions, and even government policy is becoming increasingly responsive, though not responsive enough. The National Science Foundation has a good program in minority and support for women at the graduate level. Yet the numbers required to support such programs are not huge, but the failure to make that investment is enormously wasteful, so we ought to be doing it over the next few years.

HEFFNER: Yes, but if you look at the flip side of that, if you turn it totally around, certainly there must be some validity to the assertions by a number of people who say, in a sense, by being concerned with these matters, and taking the time and spending the university’s resources on these matters, you’re abandoning, or at least not paying sufficient attention to the traditional role of the university in terms of excellence. Not democracy, but excellence, and the two don’t … haven’t historically gone together quite so comfortably.

SOVERN: I plead not guilty to that charge.

HEFFNER: But that’s not … I, I don’t mean … I don’t mean it as a charge, Mike.


HEFFNER: You say there’s nothing to that now?

SOVERN: Well, I wouldn’t say there’s nothing to it, but I do believe that the quality of the minority students we’re attracting at Columbia is outstanding. I can’t speak for all institutions. The consequences of failure to address the problem in the way we are addressing it are very grim, indeed. Not simply assessed in humane terms, but think of America in which substantial proportions of the population are under-productive in the global economy we are now in.

We simply cannot afford to carry a whole lot of dead wood. So we’ve got to attract talent into this pipeline and bring them on, and I have to tell you that what we are seeing is that the students we are attracting in this way are first rate. We’re not making sacrifices in quality in order to achieve these goals.

HEFFNER: All right. Let me … let me ask that question in a somewhat different way. Let me ask what the down side is of the attention being paid now to the problems we have just recited. I, I understand when you say the alternative is unacceptable, but when you say an alternative is unacceptable, you still have to tote up the price we’re going to pay in terms of what you value in the traditional university scene.

SOVERN: I don’t think we have to sacrifice anything of value in a traditional university scene. I really don’t. The … much of the tension derives first of all from the freshness of the diversity and the heightened self-consciousness of various groups in America, both within and without universities. We simply have to drive through that. As you know, I’m a Pollyanna, and so I see the history of the human race as accepting an ever larger group as yours … you start with a family, you go to the clan, and the tribe and the city state and the nation. I have to acknowledge some regression in recent times. But I don’t see any reason not to hope that it is possible for Whites to exalt in the triumph of the human spirit represented by Martin Luther King, and for Blacks to join in that exaltation. I don’t think you have to be Polish or Catholic to be excited by Lech Walesa. These are human beings who exemplify what all of us cherish and revere. And sooner or later, I hope, we will get to the point of thinking of ourselves as members of that larger group and not be so wedded to the smaller ones.

HEFFNER: Well, now I’m going to cop out just a bit, so that I don’t get, get … don’t get labeled or label myself, but I’m serious about saying that clearly there is just so much time in one’s university experience to come in contact with great ideas, great works … now, if we expand and expand, justifiably, appropriately, properly, don’t we, by that token, cut out students’ attention upon some of the traditional scholarly concerns that you and I dealt with at Columbia when we were undergraduates?

SOVERN: I really don’t think that’s necessary, Dick. Now, we’re talking, of course, about curriculum rather than people …


SOVERN: … and, and, as you know, well, the Columbia commitment to the core of Western civilization is, is very deep and one of the great bonds that all of us alumni feel for the institution, and I’m happy to tell you that today’s students show every promise of joining our corps of fans. But, it is the case that even at Columbia, which, with very rare exceptions elsewhere, has more work required of students … that is to say, we accept, more than most faculties, the responsibility to decide what our students will study. Saying that, the entire required segment, that is, say, Contemporary Civilization, humanities, music, art, language, writing, phys-ed, adds up to fewer than 50 credits out of 124. So that add another 30 for a major, our students still have well over a year, close to two years worth of opportunity for browsing. So the proposition that you add to that, to that list of requirements, familiarity with the works of other cultures doesn’t seem to me to be derailing the educational enterprise at all… in fact, it seems to me that not to extend the core at this time is just to waste a golden educational opportunity. For one thing, obviously, some students will be motivated. Asian students will be motivated by attention to great works of Asian society, and, as you know, we have had, according to the fashion of another day, we call it “Oriental Civilization,” but Columbia has had a parallel track to the basic core in Oriental Civilization and Humanities for 40 years, and so it isn’t at all radical for us to be enlarging that perspective. So, in the first place, the taking advantage of the students’ excitement seems to me to be a sensible thing to do. In the second place, the insularity of American studies over the years is going to be very damaging to this country if continued into the future, so the importance of acquainting students in their college years with other cultures seems to me to be almost imperative, and then finally, as you know so well, the insights from comparative study of cultures are fascinating and I think will be very exciting to students.

HEFFNER: Now, you said a few moments ago that, as I know, you have a Pollyannaish approach to things. I don’t think that comes … is relevant to the area that you said before you wanted to touch upon, and that’s the area of public policy. Can I believe that you were talking about our Federal government and its attitude toward dollars and the universities?

SOVERN: No, I am very concerned, and the reason for that is that there is a very substantial lag between damaging public policy actions and the effects of those actions. And if we wait until the effects of those actions are seen, America’s universities will be in serious trouble, and that I am immodest enough to think means that America will be in serious trouble. It is the case, whatever else the Japanese may say about American productivity and American culture, they acknowledge America’s universities to be the best in the world, as does every other nation. We do, I believe, a wonderful job of teaching, even as we lay the foundations for research and productivity in the rest of the society by very many of the same creative faculty, so that the good health of these institutions, I think, is critical to America’s future. And we are underinvesting in the laboratory facilities; we are underinvesting in our people. My most serious concern is that too few of America’s best young people are opting for the professorial. The reasons for that are several … in part, other careers pay better, but in part, to be a professor today is not so attractive as it has traditionally been. Take, take the scientist, for example. The people … when you and I were young faculty members, the people you could count on to come to work smiling in the morning were the natural scientists; they loved to get to their labs; they were doing things that turned them on; they were working with students – graduate students and undergraduates – they aren’t smiling so much today. They have to spend about a third of their time filling out forms for Federal grants … the best of them know that they’ll get them, but the effort they have to make in order to get them is taking them out of the laboratory for a disproportionate part of their time. Their facilities in which they work may or may not be state of the art. It used to be the case that you could count on a scientist who cared about pure research to stay in the university and not go into an industrial lab, with a very few exceptions … Bell Labs being one of them. Now, not so clear. The state of the art laboratories are often in private industry and not so often in the university. If we allow that to continue, the consequences for the future are disastrous, because universities, among their characteristics, are … the tendency to replicate themselves. If we don’t have the best faculty taking the place of those who are about to retire, we will have the second best, and the second best do not replace themselves with the best. They replace themselves with people like themselves. So once we slip, we probably have slipped forever. And this is the key moment. We have the whole post Sputnik generation about to retire from America’s universities. We better replace them with the best, or we will no longer be the best, and the risk that we will not do that is now very high. We need increased government support for graduate students; we need to replace those facilities; we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot with tax policy. For example, in the 1986 Tax Reform Act, the government made tuition paid by an employer for graduate education taxable to the employee. Just to dramatize that, an employer says, “By God, I want to keep America’s workforce great; if my employees will take graduate work in computers and electronics, I’ll pay for it. They put in the time, I’ll put in the money.” And the employee finds out he has to pay taxes on the tuition the employer is paying … that’s perverse.

There are a number of provisions of that sort in that legislation. We need, we need rational tax policy. We need support for graduate students; we need support for facilities … I brought along a favorite clipping of mine from The Times a few months ago … it’s a wonderfully upbeat story about the new X-ray laser microscope which actually enables scientists to see living chromosomes, and the good news is that those X-ray laser microscopes will soon be small enough to place on laboratory tables, and they cost no more than $500,000 each. Now we have 300 biochemists, biologists … if we say that 30 of them must share one instrument, Columbia’s going to have to pay $5 million for this good news. And my guess is that if that instrument is as good as they claim it is, we’re going to be able to do things with it that won’t enable us to buy only 10 of them.

HEFFNER: Okay, but you’re an extremely reasonable person, and you’re saying now what I knew you would say about the dollars, but if we had your Dean of … of your medical school, or the Vice President in charge of medical services, if we had people from any of a number of fields, they would all be saying the same thing, Mike. Where do we, where do we get off this dollar kick, or how do we get on to it? Do you feel that this nation has the resources for us to feel that we are our brother’s keeper? And for us to do the right thing, as you’re suggesting we must do to stay strong, and you’re quite utilitarian about it … how do we do all this?

SOVERN: Well, we must … the richest, strongest nation in the world … we need to make investments in our future. In fact, investments of the kind I’ve been talking about would create resources in the end, not take them away from us. So that by investing in science and in people, we’ll be a more productive economy. But it … let me take the question frontally … we do have to make some choices. But one of the choices we have to make is probably to increase taxes. Now, I’m all for cutting things; you want my list, I’m perfectly willing to get rid of the tobacco subsidy. I’m virtually certain we can slow down the rate of production of the stealth bomber at greater rates. I don’t want to be fanciful about how much we can cut out of the defense budget, but there’s a lot of money there. We also can make more rational use of the resources we have. I’ve sometimes tried to fantasize about what America’s higher education would look like if we had the National University of America, of which each of our universities and colleges was a constituent unit. How would we do it differently? And it’s clear that we would have a greater sharing of resources, we would not have nearly so much competitive activity in some of the sciences, humanities and social sciences, and I do think it’s incumbent upon us in the universities to proceed with that sort of fanciful image in mind so that we don’t behave as though we were an institution in isolation, but look around the landscape and collaborate with our colleagues in making the best possible use of resources.

HEFFNER: Now, now, just a minute. We have two minutes left, and you’re telling me at the very end of this program … you’re saying something that is astonishing, and I don’t mean anything other than surprising to hear from the President of one of the great universities … are, are you willing to go along with the idea of a national university?

SOVERN: Oh, no, no … I just think it is a model for our own thinking, because I don’t want William Bennett or anyone else telling us that Columbia should no longer do biochemistry; it’s going to be in classics.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute, wait a minute … that will make one of the cuts in wasted money …

SOVERN: No … because I really don’t have any confidence in the national direction of that kind of resource allocation. It seems to me that we must accept the responsibility for doing that ourselves, and do it through greater collaboration than we now undertake.

HEFFNER: All right. Last question … maybe. How sanguine are you, setting aside your Pollyannaish qualities … how sanguine are you that we’re going to do those things that you feel we need to do in the university?

SOVERN: I am confident that we will do them sooner or later … because at some point, the damage to our nation will become apparent. I have to tell you I am not optimistic that we will do it sooner, and that makes me very apprehensive.

HEFFNER: With what results?

SOVERN: With the results that we will lose our national edge in the technological competition in the world, and that we will lose a sense of national purpose and pride as our humanities effort is diminished, as the universities decline to something less than they are today. That is my fear.

HEFFNER: It’s a horrendous fear, and as President of Columbia University, I know you don’t say that lightly, and I do want to thank you for joining me today …

SOVERN: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: … and hope that when we get together again at this table 20 years from now, things will look brighter. Thanks, Mike Sovern.

SOVERN: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s provocative guest and the theme, please write to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.