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Lock Haven University and the single story

I teach Composition, among other courses, at Lock Haven University. This course is designed to help students develop critical thinking and writing skills. One way I try to generate students’ development of these skills is to introduce a variety of texts that serve as models of effective argumentation.

This week, my students and I discussed a popular TED talk entitled “The Danger of the Single Story” by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is a marvelous address about the effects that a “single story”— a too-restricted view — can have on the listener’s ability to appreciate the complexity and full humanity of a people, or a nation.

Writes Adichie, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” We need many stories, she argues, if we are to avoid the disempowering error of seeing a people, or a situation, in reductive terms.

Because critical thinking entails drawing connections, I often encourage students to do just this by considering how someone’s argument might instructively apply to a different matter. It occurred to me this week that, after reading the latest missives from our state system’s chancellor and from our local university administration, Adichie’s warning about the danger of the single story fittingly applies to our current situation at Lock Haven University.

Specifically, I refer to the single story we keep hearing, namely that our administrators’ hands are tied, and that no alternative but to fire 100 people (47 faculty and 53 staff) over the next two years, and to cut numerous programs like music, art, history, geology, international studies, secondary education, math, and others, will serve if we are to achieve financial sustainability as an institution.

With “integration” plans afoot to merge LHU, Mansfield, and now Bloomsburg universities by 2022, the firing of faculty and staff and the cutting of programs will no doubt increase, putting the very survival of our institution in question.

Meanwhile, proposed alternatives to the chancellor’s draconian maneuver get summarily dismissed.

Challenging questions have been asked: How will the proposed integrations work, and ought the integrations be better examined over a 5-year plan before deciding to cut programs and “shed” people (shed being the term our provost has used)? Are there cuts that can be made elsewhere to buy time, including administrative, given that administrators have seen their compensation increase by 92% over the last ten years? Given the fact that our enrollment numbers this fall are healthy even amidst a pandemic, might we anticipate a healthy enrollment trend will continue, thereby offsetting the need to cut programs and “shed” people from their livelihoods for which they have devoted ten, twenty, thirty plus years? Have the damaging effects that such cuts will have on local business owners been factored, business owners who have already been taxed by the effects of the pandemic? What is the justification behind returning to the class sizes students and faculty were burdened with in 2010-11, when classes of 100 or more undermined our university’s claims to the value of small class sizes where students could forge close, career-enhancing connections with their mentor-professors and classmates?

No answers to these challenges and others have been forthcoming, other than to discount their merits.

According to the chancellor and to our local LHU administrators who have taken up the chancellor’s argument without challenge or pushback, there is nothing that can be done. It’s an old story that reflects the failure of imagination, of wise planning, and of empathy.

There is nothing that can be done, we’re told, not for the sake of our students who chose Lock Haven University because they believed they could realize a quality education here thanks to small class sizes and close connections with their professors; not for the sake of our university’s survival as we celebrate its 150th anniversary this year; not for the sake of our town, its local businesses, and the health of the local economy — an economy that depends on the staff and faculty who live in Lock Haven and on the yearly influx of students who patronize restaurants, grocery stores, and shops, and rent apartments and houses.

Their no-alternative argument is the “single story” that Adichie warns about.

Theirs is an attempt to convince readers that there is no alternative to achieving financial stability other than to place in peril the welfare of students seeking the kind of quality education they came to Lock Haven to achieve, a third of whom are the first in their families to go to college.

If we are to merge with Mansfield and with the significantly larger Bloomsburg campus, one wonders how our students’ quality education will be leveraged other than through more online courses, which students have repeatedly indicated is not what they prefer. Some students, perhaps much more than some, may simply choose to go elsewhere.

The words and phrases of this single story may well sound positive — words like “opportunity,” “return on investment,” “the effort to create efficiencies,” and a “vibrant educational experience”— but one wonders how and even whether these promised results will be achieved. The planning sounds sketchy at best.

In a recent missive to faculty, and by extension to “alumni, friends, supporters, and residents,” LHU’s president acknowledged that “There are and will be many questions that will be answered along the way, but we are ready to take this journey.”

Smart planning typically involves doing one’s best to anticipate and address the questions before the journey begins, not in the middle of it.

When one considers the possible ramifications for the local community, one ought to invite input from students, business owners, city council persons, county commissioners, and rental property owners who will be affected.

But from what I have seen, there have been no appeals for such input. Rather, the “journey” plans are being kept relatively quiet.

Another story is the fact that every $1 spent on higher education returns $11 to the Commonwealth. Ninety percent of LHU’s students are PA residents, and 80% of them stay in Pennsylvania after graduating.

My fear is that this high percentage — this “ROI” (return on investment)–won’t be sustained, at least not in Lock Haven or even Mansfield, not if the chancellor’s draconian, fast-paced merger plan goes forward.

Students may well opt to go elsewhere.

We shall see.

Right now, the 100 persons threatened to lose their jobs are framed impersonally as things to be shed. Once they are, many will be forced to move out of the area to seek jobs elsewhere, if they’re lucky enough to find them.

Dr. Lisette Schillig is an Associate Professor, English and Philosophy Department, at Lock Haven University.

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