I have been meaning to write about the sacred responsibility universities have. This was triggered by the tragedy at Bowling Green State University in March, when a young student died accidentally from alcohol poisoning as part of a hazing ritual of a fraternity at the school. The professors who knew that student and his friends must have been really suffering.
The administration’s action was bold and swift. One day later they took the Greek letters off a building constructed for that fraternity by the University a few years back. Assistant deans were all over the case. While parents were reeling, those deans were scheduling meetings. Our state’s legislators swung into “action“ by holding hearings. Fortunately more intelligent leadership has come to the fore -- possibly because criminal charges are pending.
This all triggered memories of something that happened to me at another school when I was a young professor. A chemistry major in our department disappeared and a few days later was found in a far-off place where he had committed suicide. We all knew the boy, though we didn’t know him well. It turned out there were many reasons that had started before he began college.
But his death brought sadness, guilt, and wondering if there was anything we failed to notice that might have prevented this.
So I was going to give BG leaders the benefit of the doubt. The boy killed by alcohol poisoning died on their watch. If they felt anything like my colleagues and I did 50 years ago, they were wracked with guilt. I felt the university president particularly had to be suffering; this had happened on his watch.
But a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has called into attention a more general problem with state universities nationwide, and identified a much larger place where the blame rests. Most state universities are controlled by boards appointed by politicians. And 70 percent of those board members are Republicans. The Chronicle specifically focused on North Carolina, where more than two-thirds of the university activity in that state’s famed Research Triangle is directed by members of one political party -- a party that has become dismally and largely anti-science.
I can live with partisan contol of the best basketball tickets, but a far more critical issue is how poorly our nation responded to virus that causes COVID-19.
Ohio’s most significant academic growth happened after the Board of Regents was created in 1963. The Regents’ main function then was to serve as an academic gateway through which new programs, particularly at the graduate and professional levels, had to pass.
When the Ph.D. program in the photochemical sciences at the university in Ohio where I taught was approved by the Board of Regents, every graduate dean in the state got to have a crack at trying to stop what we were proposing.
Fortunately we knew the photosciences were growing rapidly, so our proposal was relatively easy to defend. And it passed with only one negative vote.
They made the right call: So far, four successful businesses have been started by Center alumni. Another, which I started, Form Labs Ohio/Spectra Group Photopolymers found its parent company mentioned in the Wall Street Journal recently as it raised another $150 million.
Indications are that the Northwest Ohio division of Form Labs, which makes materials for 3D printing, could now be valued at $500 million. From the point of view of university- stimulated businesses, this is one of the largest in the state.
Overall, however, the Regents have been a negative force since Governor Ted Strickland brought them under political control in 2007. Saving money has little value if it prevents the development of the best minds. And a bipartisan series of chancellors of no academic distinction have been chancellors of the Ohio Board of Regents since then. One, in a short tenure as chancellor, managed in that time to inflict more damage to the Ph.D. program in the photochemical sciences at Bowling Green than even the most pessimistic could have anticipated.
The politicization of university management has had many other negatives. To come back to where we started: The BG board of trustees response to the hazing incident has been remarkable for what it has not been. The only member of the board of trustees quoted about the incident basically said this isn’t the fraternity’s fault. Rather than saying we’re appalled and going to do some serious rethinking, he made excuses.
This isn’t good enough. If we are going to avoid future disasters, both at local levels like the fraternity at Bowling Green, or at the national/international from the failure of our research community to be prepared for a pandemic, American universities have to focus on achievement, not politics. Last I looked, the corona-19 virus didn’t give a damn whether or not the University of North Carolina ever played another basketball game. But I am sure basketball would have a had a much better chance of making a faster comeback if the school had put more resources into the labs of some of its most important molecular biologists.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences; He is past chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center 3dscienceblog.com Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash