Op-Ed

Right complaint, wrong action

At issue | June 23 Herald-Leader article, "Berry removing papers from UK; Writer protesting coal's influence"

My first introduction to a college or university was in the mid-1950s when my aunt walked me through parts of the University of Kentucky campus.

I was not particularly interested, but went along to be polite. I am now a two -time alumnus (BS and MS) plus a PhD from another institution and have completed 40 years as a college professor (economist) in a public liberal arts institution.

Life often leads us down totally unexpected paths.

Wendell Berry's recent concerns about UK's priorities and his decision to withdraw some of his donated writings caught my attention. While I agree with much of his philosophical position about sustaining the environment, his criticism of the coal industry and UK's seemingly confused set of institutional priorities, I do not think his decision is particularly productive or helpful for the long-term accomplishment of a more sustainable society.

While symbolic, the withdrawal of his work means many students and faculty will not have ready access to his ideas, insights, arguments and philosophy. It is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Berry. What is important is exposure to a diversity of positions and thought. Progress only comes from continued questioning, reflection, analysis, debate and hard as it may be — change.

The behaviors of the industrial world (including Kentucky) are not sustainable. One only has to casually observe the condition of our environment, particularly in urban areas; our loss of clean water and air; our inability to deal with poverty issues, health care challenges and political tensions domestic and international to understand that — while we have made some of the greatest progress in human history — we face ever greater challenges.

Collections such as Berry's are valuable contributions to future generations' ability to understand and offer sustainable solutions to many of our challenges.

Large universities are complex institutions with many leaders and constituents. They are always short of sufficient resources to meet expectations of those constituents be they students, parents, taxpayers (for public institutions such as UK) and a large array of other political interests. In short, many have reached what economists characterize as a range of diseconomies of scale. Many are not too big to fail, just too big to operate efficiently and effectively.

The general public has come to hold unrealistic expectations of its universities. All basketball teams cannot win a national championship every year. Nor can all faculty earn Nobel Prizes. Neither can any institution maintain mission integrity by attempting to be all things to all people, even when some of those people offer enticements such as large donations — if the institution will do whatever.

It takes great courage, strength and leadership for any institution to be true to its missions. On this front, UK is facing great challenges and it is proper for those challenges to be pointed out.

In so doing, Berry has made valuable observations. To be successful in his observations, he should increase pressure on the institution by adding to his collection of wisdom, not withdrawing it.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. would be well advised to listen and take these observations to heart. UK is an institution of higher learning that should lead its students in their intellectual and personal growth. It also should lead the state in finding solutions to ever more complex challenges, be they in agriculture, resource extraction (coal, timber, etc.), urban growth, the environment, etc.

In doing so, the institution must be able to maintain intellectual integrity and objectivity and avoid special-interest pressures.

Otherwise it will fail in its impressive efforts to become a world-class institution while simultaneously meeting Kentucky's needs.

Berry and Todd should make peace and form a mutually supportive relationship. This would be an important step in the process of UK and Kentucky becoming models of collaboration and sustainable evolution. The state seal says "united we stand, divided we fall." I hope both Todd and Berry can live that philosophy.

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