The presidents of Hiram College and the University of Akron said Thursday that an anti-intellectual air pervades American society.
Hiram’s Tom Chema and UA’s Luis Proenza told the Akron Press Club the public does not give higher education the value it deserves.
“Everybody thinks they’re an expert,” Proenza said during the free-flowing discussion of many issues in education. “We need to stop letting people who think they know something about higher education dictate policies.”
Chema said that much of the American public needs more education.
Ignorance leads to emotionalism, which leads to gridlock — exactly what’s going on now in Washington, D.C., he said, adding: “The body politick would do better if it was more educated.”
Chema, 66, and Proenza, 68, are among a number of college and university presidents across the country who are retiring in June as the recession seems to be lifting.
Chema will leave the 1,300-student, private Hiram College in northeast Portage County for his part ownership in the Gateway Consulting Group in Cleveland.
Proenza will take a paid, yearlong sabbatical from the 27,000-student, tax-supported UA, then will return as a full-time professor and president emeritus.
A third Northeast Ohio president, Lester Lefton at Kent State, also is retiring in June. He has not announced his plans beyond his paid sabbatical.
Searches are underway for all of their successors, and those men or women will face a full plate of challenges, according to Chema’s and Proenza’s off-the-cuff comments before about 90 people at UA’s Quaker Station.
Chema predicted that financial problems will crush more colleges in the coming years, forcing some to close.
“Several in Ohio are hanging on by their fingernails,” he said.
Hiram is trying to ensure that it survives by collaborations and partnerships with other institutions, he said.
For instance, it now has agreements with five community colleges to finish the last two years of their students’ educations and is launching an online program that he expects to grow to 3,000 students in three years.
Yet progress is painfully slow, with faculty resistant to change, Chema said.
“People are still very much in their own realm,” he told the audience.
Proenza repeated a frequent complaint: The public too often equates college selectivity and price with quality.
Yet colleges and universities do not have to contribute as much when they accept students with high test scores with well-lined pockets.
“We are all mixed up in how we judge higher education,” he said. “Only recently have we begun to talk about value-added,” or how a college or university can help students to excel.
Unfortunately, many students have been coddled by gentle K-12 programs, he said, and higher education here is not as strenuous as it is in some other countries.
When he came to the U.S. from Mexico for school, Proenza said, he learned little in his first few years except for a better grasp of English.
“Expect more from everybody around you. Don’t coddle,” he advised.
Chema said that the declining numbers of high school students will pose the biggest problem for many colleges and universities in coming years.
There are only two ways to manufacture more students, he said with a laugh: clone them or import more immigrants, neither of which is going to happen.
“What happened to the old-fashioned way?” Proenza interjected to audience laughter.
That’s a possibility, Chema acknowledged, but that won’t help colleges and universities much for 18 years.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.