Traverse City Record-Eagle

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May 23, 2014

Forum: Return learning to center where it belongs

Northwestern Michigan College is a magnificent asset to our region, providing learning opportunities in many forms. NMC offers core courses to students intending to transfer, various degrees, certificates, short-term job training, myriad cultural delights and lifelong learning options. The student may be in high school, a new graduate, an unemployed, underemployed or highly employed adult, or anyone of any age seeking the enrichment of learning something new.

In its mission statement, NMC pledges that “keeping learning at the center” is a core “value.” Many highly skilled and dedicated employees work to make that promise a reality on a daily basis. I was one of them for several years. During my time at NMC, I sorrowfully watched the emphasis change from learning to the business of learning. This mindset fosters the kind of information control the Record-Eagle has so rightly criticized.

When running a manufacturing business, product quality, uniformity and consistency are more than important, they are necessities. Control is paramount. This type of focus has led, quite logically, I feel, to the imperial behavior of the Board of Trustees in its (apparent) repeated violations of the Open Meetings Act and the current administration’s approach to teaching and learning.

I would remind the Board that education is not manufacturing. Uniformity is neither desirable nor achievable, for people are not widgets. NMC is a nonprofit public institution that provides a crucial service, not a business.

College leaders seem to believe every aspect of learning can and should be quantified. Any good teacher will tell you that students learn differently, yet uniformity is valued by administrators because it saves money. Faculty are exhorted to use the same book, the same assignments, perhaps even the same lectures — the antithesis of worthwhile higher education.

Such standardization does facilitate statistical measurement and staffing: not as much expertise or experience is required, allowing lower-paid part-time faculty and staff to be hired. Lots of data is gathered; it just doesn’t mean much. Saving on actual education costs means there is more room for growth (more buildings, more administrative personnel). Deals and plans are worked out in advance of public meetings; even the mechanism for speaking out at board meetings is carefully regulated. The business hums along impressively, while meeting the important learning needs of the community becomes an unexamined assumption, not a core value.

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