Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Academics should remain a priority

The stories on Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould and discussions with MSU President M. Peter McPherson, Ronald Fisher, director of the Honors College, and others is among the most exciting articles I’ve read in my nearly 40 years at MSU.

The Honors College is a first-class location for the venture and I hope it attracts its share of the talented discovery awards announced today. It is also nice to see McPherson taking a substantive interest in matters of curriculum growth and innovation. I hope it sends a powerful message to the growing tribe of administrators - including the deans, vice presidents, the entire hierarchy - with but a hazy interest in curricular and research challenges that the first business of the university is academic, and that fancy offices, expense accounts and other administrative trappings are purely subordinate. Further, MSU’s incentive system and resource allocation should expand much more in this direction. Having moved from a “cow college” to a “football university” we need to do more academically and de-emphasize sports.

The developments which followed Indiana University’s firing of Bob Knight deserve attention. It is sad when a legend falls - I think of former President Harry Truman relieving General Douglas MacArthur of his command - but this is the price we pay when we slight or forget the main purpose of our effort - in Truman’s case the constitutional primacy of civilian command. In view of threats and protests, President Myles Brand had to flee his official campus residence and his wife, an Indiana professor, required police escort while lecturing in her class. The president had to reaffirm: “Make no mistake about it, Indiana University is primarily and most importantly an academic university.” But it is not a lesson that is easily learned because of the weight of local tradition. Last week at the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union I was next to a young couple ordering checkbooks and the clerk showed them a statement indicating they could donate one dollar to the sports fund. Interested, I asked if I could donate $1 to the Main Library. I was told no.

The other point concerns the nature of our science focus. We need to go beyond our awe of science both in terms of fear or nervousness and excessive faith. McPherson is perfectly right in saying that science can be made accessible and Gould is the best example of that. An anecdote is illustrative. Robert Oppenheimer, of Manhattan Project fame in 1960, cited his ability to get Truman and Dean Acheson to understand nuclear fusion as his credentials to talk about physics to Reed College students. But science has also led to colossal failure and has its limits, prompting even books on the “end of science.” It is still a parochial heritage of the developed world, particularly in the social sciences. Leading thinkers - not the least, Albert Einstein - have emphasized matters of the spirit. Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, put it best when asked how matter and pure thought connected. He answered, “God only knows, and she did not tell me.”

I hope I may, before concluding, express my appreciation of the two excellent days of coverage of the Gould visit by The State News (“Harvard professor on campus today,” SN 9/13 and “Harvard professor kicks off science lecture series,” SN 9/14).

Subbiah Kannappan
professor emeritus of economics


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