I retired in 2013 from my position as a Professor of English and a former dean and provost at the State University of New York ((SUNY) at Plattsburgh. When I retired a colleague asked me to write an essay reflecting on my career for a journal for which he served as a member of the editorial board. Although initially I was unsure where this project would take me, my readings and personal reflections led me to write “Northern Twilight: SUNY and the Decline of the Public Comprehensive College.” In the essay I described SUNY Plattsburgh in 2050 as a highly micromanaged branch of an extremely centralized system that pretty much squelched local initiative and creativity. Since projections for the future are inevitably based on present fears, hopes, and dilemmas, my version of Plattsburgh in 2050 reflected my concerns about growing tendencies towards micromanagement in higher education and elsewhere, including medicine, the military, K-12 education, law (particularly mandatory sentencing), and banking. The essay reflected my concern for the fate of public comprehensive colleges in systems such as SUNY but also my concern for the fate of professional autonomy and individual judgement in the workplace. The essay can be found on Google by going to “Thought and Action, Fall 2013,” where you can find the article on page 45.
I should note that Thought and Action is the higher education journal of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The essay actually won a Democracy in Education Award from the NEA. On both sides of the political spectrum teachers unions have often been used as the scapegoat for most of the ailments of America’s educational system, but the unions have been more right than wrong on the threats to individual teacher autonomy and on the sheer goofiness of America’s testing mania.
As I see it, professional autonomy isn’t just a nice thing to have, like an office with a great view (or maybe an office with any view at all), but a critical component in dealing with a complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing world where individuals will need to make decisions based on local and sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. Yet the actual practice today in many work environments seems to be headed in the opposite direction. There is hope because some of these tendencies, such as excessive reliance on standardized tests in education and mandatory sentencing in criminal justice, have produced negative consequences that many of us are no longer willing to ignore or tolerate. More on this later. Your comments are welcome, particularly if you have another point of view.