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  • Writer's pictureMarkie Miller

State Universities

Even after half a century in higher education, most of it at Bowling Green State University, I was staggered by the death of a student this month after a reported fraternity initiation hazing incident.

Supposedly, 20-year-old Stone Foltz was made to consume a vast amount of alcohol at an off-campus event, enough to kill him.

Why? There really are no answers, from the incident itself, to the panic and grief, through the guilt that remains. The guilt of the students that caused it to happen, the university that didn’t believe something like that could happen, and the posturing politicians trying to gain favor from reintroducing anti-hazing bills they’ve refused to pass for years.

The time for legislation was years ago. Not that it would necessarily have done any good. No -- what we need to realize here is that something isn’t working.

I believe that there are few more difficult experiences, even in normal times, than being a university president. Years ago a student that studied chemistry in my college committed suicide. The incident was terrible for everyone in the program. We all suffered.

I can’t even imagine how those running BGSU feel now. But, more than ever, it’s time for the president, the board of the university and the regents to change expectations.

Colleges may have stopped acting in loco parentis decades ago, but frankly, young people need all the guidance and discipline they can get. And it’s our responsibility to see that they get it.

There are many reasons for this crisis, and one is that American society has lost discipline. Some families aren’t families any longer; partnerships are transient; no one has the courage to say ‘no’. The big kids on the block can gang up on the littlest guy; and too often no one stands up and says that’s wrong.

Teachers are boxed in by regulations.

Yes, we have separation of church and state, and religion rightfully doesn’t belong in our public schools. But that doesn’t mean morality should be thrown out with the bathwater.

My views have been shaped by more than half a century in higher education. A university education is indeed a higher education. But there are at least two cultures in universities today -- the serious research culture … and the rest of it. Students that deserve a chance to move to the next higher level, have to earn it, and working with them is one of life’s deepest pleasures. But the universities responsible for maintaining those standards are under pressure.

Some years ago, Ohio, along with Michigan and many other states, decided that when it came to state schools, money was more important than scholarship.

Those who worked in higher ed were pressured to retain, retain, retain undergraduates.

And we did, whether they deserved to be or not -- because so much of our funding depended on enrollment.

Many of the best students I worked with were not born in the United States.

The brightest of other nations came here to get a chance. Recently I did two things I thought I would never do: I joined Facebook and LinkedIn. On the latter, I was immediately linked with multiple former students. I found two new businesses started by alumni -- one from China, the other from Russia.

I will soon to do a program on Spanish radio on 3D printing, my specialty, at the invitation of an alumna from the University of Madrid. The Facebook page I joined is from my little home town in western New York, a place of mostly Dutch immigrants who begat university leaders, preachers, doctors who labored tirelessly not knowing if they’d ever be paid.

America’s modern state university system emerged after World War II to make college educations possible for those who could not otherwise afford them. In the post-pandemic educational universe, it is essential to realize opportunity is what our founders claimed as our birthright.

John Millett, the first chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, had been president of Miami University years before taking that job in 1963, heading a new system he had done much to create. He knew change was needed, and recognized that the time was ripe because Ohio had an aggressive mover and shaker new governor, James Rhodes.

We need to reexamine this notion of “college for all, regardless of their skills,” that has been a national mantra for decades -- and this may be an ideal time to do so. The federal government is paying out hundreds of billions to support those that have lost jobs and businesses during the pandemic. The nation’s infrastructure badly needs rebuilding. So how about creating opportunities for young people to work on projects for the common good, gain skills and then go to college or trade school?

That succeeded brilliantly in the 1930s, with programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.) There are plenty of needs now. Creative politicians and other leaders need to work to make this happen. Our nation, and future generations, may depend on it.

Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) at Bowling Green State University and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences; his writings are on the web site

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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