Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Building the Future of Public Higher Education

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reminded several times of the danger facing American higher education institutions.  One of the strengths of American higher education has been its diversity.  However, today it appears that many institutions are struggling with falling attendance amid increasing competition, at a time when both the higher education community and the broader society are questioning the purpose of the college/university in the new global information society.   

            One suggestion that I heard was that states should privatize their public colleges and universities, selling them off to corporations that would then manage them.  That, to me, is exactly the wrong thing to do.  Higher education is a fundamental institution of our democracy.  Our colleges and universities are the foundry in which we, as a nation, forge new ideas—often ideas that are not popular at the time or that may threaten profit-seeking companies.  Corporatizing higher education would simply turn our campuses into job training sites where students are acclimated to corporate mores.  Higher education is about building and maintaining our society.  Even with faltering State support, much of the teaching mission of higher education is supported by federal scholarships and loans; I see no reason why our social commitment to students, funded by our taxes as a societal investment, should be used to make a few corporations rich.  The critical issue is to understand the social need for higher education in a changing cultural and economic environment as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Society.
            A quick look at history might help explain the importance of a societal context and where we need to go.  Most of our public state colleges and universities were created during the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  The big land grant universities were funded originally by the sale of federal lands through the Morrill Act of 1862 in order significantly expand the number of professionals needed to support the nation as it settled the frontiers and created industrialized urban centers.  The goal was (according to the Land Grant Act of 1862):
. . . to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
The Act was in response to the significant changes to society stimulated by the Industrial Revolution: (1) the need for greater professional expertise in a wide variety of professions—from engineering to social sciences—and (2) urbanization and the growth of cities as a result of industrialization.  We needed better agricultural production to support urbanization; one result was the creation of agricultural colleges and research centers in each state university and an Agricultural Extension Services that put university agricultural expertise into every country, helping farmers improve production on the front lines of agriculture.   This social mandate also resulted in new curricula, new types of courses (laboratory courses in science, for instance), and new academic subjects (statistics and the social sciences, for example).  It also brought to higher education new students—the children of farmers, coal miners, immigrants—who would lead the country as the Industrial Age matured.
            One of the drivers of urbanization was immigration.  As the population became more diverse, States responded by creating normal schools—schools designed to prepare teachers to educate the children of immigrants and to create standards for school systems in a state.  Many of today’s state colleges and universities began as teacher colleges. 
            Over the years, these public colleges and universities became the “three-legged stool” of innovation for the Industrial period, combining teaching, research, and public service to serve the needs of their states and of the nation, generally.  Each college and each university is a community of academics and other professionals who focus on developing new knowledge and passing that knowledge on through direct interaction with various user communities and, through the curriculum, with future professionals.   The diversity of American higher education, then, becomes a societal asset, as there are many places where new ideas can take root and many contexts for understanding knowledge and turning it into action; this diversity is a strategic strength for American society.
            By the 1950s—when the nation was just beginning to see the outline of the coming Information Revolution—the Truman Commission on Higher Education identified eleven principles or goals that summed up key characteristics of an educated person on the eve of the new era:
·      An ethical code of behavior
·      Informed and responsible citizen solving problem skills
·      Understanding global interdependence
·      Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
·      Understanding others and expressing one’s self
·      Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
·      The ability to create a satisfying family life
·      The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
·      Developing critical and constructive thinking habits

These were ways in which higher education was expected to contribute to the quality of life in American society that went beyond simple preparation for a career.
Higher Education in the Information Era
            We are now a generation into the Information Revolution.  It is easy to see that some of the innovations made to help higher education adjust to the Industrial Age are no longer relevant and that others need to be seen in a new context.   We saw that higher education innovations in the 1800s were stimulated by urbanization, immigration, and the need for new kinds of professionals to grow and sustain the industrial economy and the new society that it was forging.  So, what are the drivers for innovation in this new era?  Some thoughts:
·      Just as the Industrial Revolution stimulated a need for a new professional class, it has become clear that the Information Revolution requires a more educated workforce at many levels.  The federal government has set a goal that 60 percent of high school graduates will go on to postsecondary education.  Currently, the level is 39 percent.  This should help reverse the enrollment decline; however, most high school graduates who are prepared to go to college already do so.  We need to significantly increase the percentage of high school graduates who are prepared for college-level work.   This will require that colleges actively support improvement of the K-12 curriculum, potentially blurring the traditional lines that separate K-12 and postsecondary education.
·       Agricultural production remains an issue, but today—and for the future—the problems are increasingly international and driven by long-term global trends. Writing in Scientific American, Lester R. Brown noted that world grain production has fallen short for the past several years, while demand for food continues to rise.  This is an example of what he calls a “trend-driven” change that is “unlikely to reverse without a reversal in the trends themselves.” (Scientific American: Lights Out—How it All Ends, Kindle Edition, p. 722).  The goal must be not simply to increase agricultural productivity but also to address a spectrum of public policy and environmental issues.  The Cooperative Extension model created in the 1860s to improve agricultural production needs to be re-imagined to address these global environmental and biotechnology issues.
·      We are now starting to see unintended consequences of late twentieth century innovations in health, energy, and other fields.  Julie Wakefield, again in Scientific American, noted: “Innovation is changing things faster than ever before, and such increasing unpredictability leaves civilization more vulnerable to misadventure as well as to disaster by design.”  (Ibid., p. 132)  In an increasingly interconnected world, disasters—especially biological disasters like epidemics—can spread both far and fast.   It is essential that our universities produce graduates who are prepared to understand and respond to the increasingly global implications of local actions.  The old disciplines need to be re-thought and, where appropriate, new interdisciplinary curricula need to be created.  At the same time, we also need to generate new interdisciplinary research efforts. 
·      The post-Industrial economy is inherently global, but it is also essential that we build local communities that can thrive in a global economy and society.  In this environment the university is an ambassador, linking local communities with global trends.
These issues affect all three legs of the higher education stool:  teaching, research, and engagement.  Some examples:
·      Teaching – We need a more interdisciplinary approach to general education and a capstone general education event that helps soon-to-graduate professionals better understand the broad social issues that will face them when they enter their professions.  Increasingly, the professions will require interdisciplinary approaches that will facilitate new kinds of innovation and connections across traditional professional communities.
·      Research—We need interdisciplinary thinking to drive research ideas and an environment that encourages inter-institutional collaboration.
·      Engagement—The “service” mission needs to be seen as fully integrated with the other two, as we build new relationships with communities through both teaching and research and technology transfer. 
Reinvigorating Higher Education as a Social Good
It should be clear that higher education in the Information Age should not be seen as a purely “personal” good.  It must be perceived and supported as a “societal” good in this new environment, just as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  This begins with a re-commitment to the vision of higher education as a three-legged stool, with a firm commitment to the integration of teaching, research, and service/engagement.  
            We also need to recognize that these functions are no longer place-specific.   Technology allows us to distribute our resources and also to combine resources to ensure that all students and beneficiaries of research and engagement have access to the best possible talents and services.  Examples of technology-based collaborations already exist to point the way.  For instance, the Great Plains Inter-institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) allows state universities in the Midwest to offer degree programs that call on the expertise of faculty across all participating institutions.  Similarly, the CIC CourseShare initiative is a collaboration among “Big Ten” institutions to use technology to aggregate students and extend the reach of faculty in specialized courses.  The Worldwide University Network has used the Internet to create research collaborations in a variety of subjects.  The American Distance Education Consortium brought together Cooperative Extension Services at land grant universities across the nation to share agriculture-related expertise.  In short, online technology allows colleges and universities to extend their ability to deliver to their communities the best, most appropriate programs, faculty, and research.
            In this new environment, not every campus needs to duplicate every discipline, every degree program, etc.  Technology should allow states to transform some campuses into specialty campuses and then use online learning to distribute some courses to other campuses as needed.  That said, campuses should also be sure that they are fully engaged with their local community, using technology to bring into the community resources from other institutions. 
            Ultimately, much depends on State governments re-committing to the idea that higher education is a public good, not just a private good and embracing changes that will allow our institutions to do a better job of building educated and agile communities in this new era.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Community Built from Steel: The Legacy of Frank and Julia Buhl

The Shenango Valley sits on the western edge of Pennsylvania, where the Shenango River flows southward toward the Ohio.   It includes 8 communities in Pennsylvania and, on the valley’s western heights, in Ohio.  Nestled in the river valley is the city of Sharon. At the top of the east hill is Hermitage.  When I was a boy, it was just Hickory Township.   In those days, the real economic center of the region was the Valley.  Sharon sat on either side of the river, while up and down the river were the steel mills, the fabricating plants, Westinghouse, a railroad tank care manufacturing center, and other industries.  Sharon was a mill town.  At one time it was a major steel producing area, based on the easy availability of a fuel that left no residue.  Today, much of that is gone, but there remains a powerful and positive legacy of a family who, at the height of the industrial revolution, ran the mills and, in their later years, contributed greatly to the quality of life in the community.   As a youngster, I took their gifts for granted.  Today, I am amazed.  Decades after the Shenango Valley became part of the rust belt, its residents continue to benefit from gifts to the community provided by the Buhl family as these communities seek a new role in a new age.  This is the story of their legacy.
The Buhl Family
Frank Buhl was the grandson of immigrants.  His grandfather, Christian Buhl, was a hat maker who emigrated from Bavaria in 1804 and settled in Zelionople in Butler County.  Frank’s father, Christian H. Buhl, was born in Butler in 1812 and learned the hatter’s trade.  With his brother, Fred, he moved to the Detroit area where they ran a successful fur trading company.  In 1855, Christian H. left the fur trade and became an industrialist, developing connections with a variety of banks, railroads, and several ironworks.  He served as Mayor of Detroit from 1860-61.  
            In 1862, Christian H. turned his attention to the Shenango Valley.   From the beginning, the Valley was attractive to iron makers.  It was one of a very few sources of “block coal”—a kind of coal that contained no sulfur and burned without leaving behind ashes (Mercer County, p. 71).  As early as 1850, Joel Curtis, a local coal mine operator, decided to take the next step and use some of his coal to smelt iron.  Curtis established the Sharon Iron Company, which occupied several blocks along the flats on the east side of the Shenango River.  The company included a coal railroad, two mines, and ten industrial buildings, including a furnace and rolling mill.  It also owned several company houses for employees.  Christian H. Buhl invested in the plant in 1865.  
            FrankH. Buhl was born in Detroit in 1848.  After graduating from Yale University, he moved to Sharon in 1867 to work for the Sharon Iron Company.   He later became plant manager and then superintendent.   He left the area in 1878 to take charge of his father’s copper and brass rolling mill in Detroit, returning to Sharon in 1887 to oversee operations at the Sharon plant.  By 1888, it was the largest plant in Mercer County, employing 700 workers .  Frank Buhl went on to acquire and lead other mills in the region, including the Sharon Steel Castings Company, the first steel manufacturing facility in the Valley and in Mercer County.  He also owned and operated several coal mines in the region.  
            Shortly after returning to Sharon, Buhl met and married Julia A. Forker.  Julia was born in Mercer.  Her parents, Henry and Selina Forker, brought her to Sharon as a young child.  Her father, a coal mine owner, died in a railroad accident in 1885.  The couple built a stone mansion on Sharon’s east hill, within easy walking distance of downtown Sharon.  The mansion remains today, restored and operating as a bed and breakfast.  The Buhls lived in Sharon for the remainder of their lives, where they were actively involved in the social life of the community. Frank died in 1918; Julia survived until 1936.
Commitment to Community
The Buhls were childless and, after Buhl sold his operations in the early 1900s, they devoted the rest of their lives to community service.  For example, they continued funding for the Christian H. Buhl Hospital—forerunner of today’s Sharon Regional Hospital—that Frank’s father had helped to get started.  One of their first investments was in the Buhl Independent Rifles (BIR), an independent military and civic organization that had grown out of a national call for volunteers during Spanish-American War.  Buhl made the first donation to the BIR and was a frequent contributor; he also loaned BIR funds (later cancelling the loan) to build an armory that housed the weekly BIR drills and a wide range of social and civic events, annual banquets, dances, and meetings.  In turn, the BIR supported other organizations, including the local chapter of the Sunshine Society and a community basketball team (Mercer County, p. 183).
The F.H. Buhl Club
            In 1901, the Buhls began work on the F.H. Buhl Club, setting aside funds for:
The maintenance of a club for social enjoyment by means of games, such as billiards, pool, bowling, checkers, chess or other innocent amusements, including also facilities for gymnastics exercises, swimming, and other athletic sports; the maintenance of a library and reading room for the use of its members and the encouragement of education; and the erection, furnishing and equipment of a building for the use of said club, with a hall for public and private purposes. (Buhlbullet

A new building was constructed on East State Street, a short walk from the Buhl mansion, to house the club.  It was completed in 1903.  The ground floor included bowling alleys, a small auditorium, locker and shower rooms, and general rooms; the second floor included offices, the library stacks, a reading and reference rooms, as well as a billiard room and gym.  A music room and several meeting and classrooms were on the third floor.  
            The library faced State Street and featured marble floors and a two-story semi-circular stacks for books with hardwood shelves, a large reading/reference room, and a children’s library.  Initially, the library was available only to Buhl Club members, but in the 1920s, voters approved a levy to support the library, which became the Sharon Free Public Library in 1923.   It attracted nearly 2,000 members in the first year and continued to grow, expanding children’s branches to five local elementary schools.  By the late 1960s, the library was over-crowded, forcing a move to a new facility a block away from its original Buhl Club home.
Julia Buhl and the Buhl Girls Club
            After Frank Buhl died in 1918, Julia continued his community service work.  One of her many projects was the Mercer County branch of the International Sunshine Society.  This group supported under-privileged children, arranging summer vacations on local farm and providing medical and dental care, eyeglasses, shoes and clothing, and hot lunches for school children.   In the 1930s, she remodeled the Boys’ Club, and, in 1936, expanded the club’s basic mission by opening a girls’ club on the site of the old Buhl Independent Rifles Armory.   Memberships were given to female students who maintained good grades in school.  Over the years, it served as a recreation center for girls and as a venue for dances and other social events.  The Club continued operations until 1987, when its services were consolidated with the F.H. Buhl Club. 
Buhl Community Recreation Center
            Today, the Buhl Community Recreation Centeroperates out of the original F.H. Buhl building on East State Street.    Recent youth programs included academic tutoring, piano, guitar, and voice lessons, and instruction on crocheting and German.  A mother/child “Fun Time Gym” program focuses on developing gross motor skills, while a “Prince Party” introduced young girls to ballet and the social graces.   Dance classes were offered for pre-school youngsters through teenagers.  Youth gymnastics training was offered for beginner through advanced.  Adult programs included yoga, volleyball, guitar, painting, voice, crocheting, sewing, piano, and German.  In addition, members and guests have access to an indoor swimming pool and handball and racquetball courts, ping pong, pool, air hockey and other games.  A new service introduced in 2013 was a Building Blocks Child Center in the site of the original Children’s Library.  In addition, the Center hosted an arts and crafts show and a community sing.
            A focal point for many Center fitness programs is the Henry and Catherine EvansFitness Center.  Recently, Fitness Center has been enhanced with the addition of $100,000 in new cardio and strength training equipment.  
            The vision of the Center is  to provide individuals & families a positive, accepting environment, enabling them to achieve excellence in their leisure, education, physical fitness & life.”  Center Director Tony Rogers notes, “There’s hardly a person here who won’t tell you how being a member has changed his life, who found a mentor or got advice, who was touched in a positive way.” 

In 1907, Buhl began to acquire land in Hickory Township (now Hermitage, Pa.), bordering Sharon, for the purpose of creating a park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”   By 1911, he had acquired 300 acres, which he began to develop.  The “Buhl Farm” (a term he used to avoid confusion with an amusement park) initially included four miles of roadways, seven wells for drinking water, an 11-acre artificial lake (today called Lake Julia) and a lakeside building—the Casino—that was used by swimmers and for dances and other social events.  
            Buhl Farm opened in 1914, with the goal, according to Frank Buhl, that it be “used as a playground and a place of cultural enhancement for the public in general and especially the residents of the community."   It included a picnic grove with a shelter building.  There were also tennis courts, an athletic field with seating for 1,000 spectators, a children’s playground and a golf course.  For many years, Lake Julia was a popular ice skating site in winter months; a professional ice skating rink was creating when the Lake no longer was appropriate.  Lake Julia was recently re-dredged and re-opened.
            Over the years, other features were added to Buhl Farm, including a swimming pool and pool house adjacent to the Casino, a Farm House that today is the home of the Avalon Golf and Country Club, an Activities Building housing child care and a Summer Youth Program, a memorial garden in memory of Julia Buhl, a baseball field, a driving range, a fitness trail, and a gazebo.  In 2001, an arboretum project was begun that today features more than six hundred trees.
            The park itself is free and open to the public.  Anyone can use it for jogging picnics, playing tennis or using the other facilities.  The swimming pool has a small fee, but it is kept low.  The park is a popular site for family and school reunions, wedding receptions, and other events.
            An important part of the original park was a free nine-hole golf course—still the only free golf course in the United States.   Called “Dum Dum” by locals, the free course has several simple rules that reflect Buhl’s commitment to free public access:
·      Each golfer must have a bag, a minimum of four clubs, and a putter.
·      No children under seven are permitted on the course.
·      Children aged seven to eleven are permitted to play if they are accompanied by an adult and have completed a formal golf instruction course.
·      Shirts are required; “short-shorts” are not permitted.
·      No alcoholic beverages are permitted.
·      Play is limited to groups of four members or fewer.
            Dum Dum introduced many Valley youngsters to the game of golf.  Joe Thiel, owner of Joe Thiel Golf Schools, wrote in 2008
“ . . . like most children growing up in our blue collar city I could not afford the expensive game of golf, but through Mr. Buhl’s generous gift this 9-hole course was free for all youngsters like me as it still is today, and I wore out my welcome.  With old Sam Sneed signature hand-me-down gold clubs, I would be there from 5:30 am in the morning when the sun was just perfect on summer days and did not return until the church bills rang at their 5:30 daily time.  From the time I was 10 years old I knew . . . that I would at all costs become a gold professional.”

            “We have been blessed with an asset that very few Communities will ever have,” observed Buhl Park Corporation President Phil Marrie in a December 2013 Facebook message.  He noted some of the many services that the Park provides to the Shenango Valley community today: 
Free public concerts during the summers that brings the residents of the Communities together to appreciate what was given to us and to enjoy relationships that we have developed over the years. A swimming pool that is operated to allow all residents of the Shenango Valley have a community pool that benefits all. A fantastic place to walk and run and be with friends and enjoy the beauty of the Farm. Many activities that allow our youth to understand environmental needs....Fishing in Lake Julia.....Programs during the year to teach students of the Valley, about the environment.
            It was not unusual for companies to provide recreational facilities to their workers in the heady days of the Industrial Revolution.  In the Shenango Valley, for instance, Westinghouse Corporation also created a small public park that included tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and a picnic area.  What made Buhl Park, the Buhl Clubs, and the library unusual is that, often, they were created after—in some cases decades after—the Buhls sold their interest in the local steel mills.  The Buhl facilities were, upon reflection, more of a personal contribution to a community that had been good to them than an investment in worker satisfaction.
            It is worth noting that Frank Buhl also lent his name to the town of Buhl, Idaho, which was founded in 1906.  Buhl had been a major investor in a large-scale irrigation project in the area, which is now known as the Trout Capitol of the World.  Yet, as Steve Cump noted in the news service, “Our man Frank gets no respect hereabouts.”   The Buhls contributed not to their own name or business interests, but to the community where they spent their adult lives.
            The challenge, today, is that it is harder to define community.  Wendell Berry defined “community” as a local interdependence:  “ . . .a community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature.” (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, p. 120).   In today’s global economy, when supply chains, production, and value chains are distributed globally, it is sometimes harder to see how we are interdependent on a local scale.  Part of the legacy of Frank and Julia Buhl is the vision that one invests in ways that help create community.
Berry, Wendell.  Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.  Pantheon Books, 1992.

Mercer County Historical Society.  Mercer County Pennsylvania:Pictorial History 1800-2000.  Donnnig Company Publishers, 2001.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Let the Mystery Be?

Iris Dement sings that, while everyone wants to know where we came from and where we are going, she is happy to “let the mystery be.”  I tend to agree with her at one level, but at another I am just too curious, I guess.  I am at an age where the curiosity is becoming more immediate.  It is one thing to wonder in June what Santa Claus will bring; it is another to be listening for reindeer hooves on Christmas Eve!

We have many different creation myths around the world.  I don’t take any of them literally.  They are all attempts by people to understand their world and, especially, that part of their world that they cannot experience through the five senses.  Today, of course, we know that there is much more out there than we can know through the five senses.   We know that there are three—maybe four if time really is one—dimensions; but what if there are four more that we cannot quite sense?  We can experience matter, but science tells us that there is an equal amount of anti-matter all around us and in and out of us.  Is there one universe or do we live in a small corner of a multi-verse?  

Increasingly, I feel like a caterpillar just about to start making its cocoon.  Does a caterpillar know, when he is making the cocoon, that he will transform into a butterfly?  Perhaps this life of ours is just the cocoon-building part of things, and we will wake one day into a new dimension or into an anti-matter world.  Or not.  It is more than a bit humbling to know that we can't perceive the totality of this vast reality of ours. 

Regardless, it is just a bit more fun to explore the mystery—even if we can’t know the truth—than to simply let the mystery be.