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The Rostrum

And now a word from Janus: 'the state of education'



One of the great advantages of retiring every eight to 10 years or so is the opportunity it gives one to play the role of Janus and even, as in this case, occasionally to do so publicly. Janus, the readers of Illinois Issues need scarcely be reminded, is that wonderful Roman god who not only looks simultaneously into the past and the future but who also serves as the god of entrances and exits — the god of gates and doors. In my case, I shall not be concerned with the exits and entrances, but only with the past and future and, using the license I was given, in a highly personal way.

I have now lived and worked in Illinois longer than I have worked and almost longer than I have lived in any part of our nation. Seattle natives, my wife and I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Columbus, Ohio, in Syracuse, N.Y., and in Champaign-Urbana and Chicago. While our hearts are still in the Pacific Northwest, our concerns and our hopes and our dreams and our professional lives are now inextricably tied to Illinois. And, lest too many people come to believe that at last Corbally is really retiring, let me quickly state that my professional career will continue to be based in Chicago and my professional concerns will continue to focus upon education in our great state.

When I was a university administrator in Ohio, we used to plead with our General Assembly and with our governor and his director of finance to please give us the funds to let us begin to try to catch up with the support level in Illinois. That was in the 1960s and in 20 short years we, in Illinois, are pleading with our General Assembly and with our governor and his budget director to please give us the funds to let us begin to try to catch up with the support level of Ohio. As a citizen of Illinois I am ashamed of that fact, for as much as I enjoyed my work in Ohio and as much as I learned in Ohio, I did not ever consider Ohio to be a particularly enlightened place. Compared to Illinois, Ohio in the last few years has been the scene of a renaissance in education while Illinois has replayed the dark ages, and I am wondering who is enlightened and who is not.

In the true spirit of
representative government,
he and his colleagues
are representing our
common denominators
and are doing so without
upsetting us at all

Before I turn my attention and my criticism to the barbarians who have, in the words of us enlightened educators, created this age of darkness, let me say a few words about my colleagues and me. We are supposed to have something called a "System of systems" in higher education in Illinois. (That capitalization is my own contribution and is not what I would have done as president of the University of Illinois — a fact which will help prove the point I am about to make.) By and large, I agree with the idea and with the goals of such a System. But neither the leaders of the System (the Illinois Board of Higher Education) nor the leaders of the systems have been able to create and to lead a coalition of postsecondary education in Illinois in which institutions have well-defined, differentiated missions, make budget and curricular requests within the parameters of those missions, and recognize what institutions should not be as enthusiastically as they recognize what they should be. I suppose that the basic problem is that the real existence of a "System of systems'' is dependent upon leaders who can rise above institutional and personal self interest. Another problem is that faculty and staff do not expect system leaders to place System needs ahead of their needs. The president of the University of Illinois is not praised for assisting in enhancing the remedial programs of community colleges through acquiescing the reallocations from the university to the colleges. Still another problem is that the System leaders have trouble finding their constituents: Not having alumni, football teams or student governments, the Illinois Board of Higher Education is at a disadvantage in getting people to take it seriously. But the framework is a good one and to tinker with it is, it seems to me, not a productive undertaking. What we need to do is to keep attempting to tinker with the weaknesses of human nature. Financial or other crises often assist in that effort.

I am also saddened by the lack of growth in leadership in Illinois. The appropriations committees and most of the leadership of our General Assembly are asking education leaders the same questions today that

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they asked me nearly 20 years ago and asked David Henry before me. These are questions designed to get them off the hook and to distract the people of Illinois and themselves from the real issues. Mike Madigan looks for chaos before he will be concerned; Les Brann worries about overhead costs in higher education while contracts for high technology centers and the economic growth that goes with such contracts go to Texas and to Arizona and to Alabama. We bicker about administrative costs in the Chicago public schools while every study one can make shows that we could divert almost all of the administrative costs to the classroom and still lack the dollars required for finding solutions to the problem. We worry about baseball teams -- not particularly outstanding models of administrative efficiency — and about redistricting and about who is going to move first in the strange decisionmaking dance that our executive and legislative branches have choreographed each year, and our state is beginning to lose the leadership it once had in the quality and quantity of services it provides the citizens of Illinois.

But, as Speaker Madigan reports and probably correctly, he does not hear complaints from his constituents, so why all of the fuss? In the true spirit of representative government, he and his colleagues are representing our common denominators and are doing so without upsetting us at all. Who is to blame for that — them or us? Of course, it is us as we have already heard years ago from Pogo.

But Janus looks ahead, not just behind, and the look ahead has some promising views. The crisis in the Chicago public schools may just possibly have seen the beginnings of a massive coalition in Chicago which is going to demand improvements in political leadership and in the leadership of public agencies. It has been an exciting experience to sit with teachers, principals, parents, community leaders, business leaders and civic leaders and watch this group come together with commitment to the children of Chicago. The coalition is still young and the arguments are not resolved and few solutions are yet in place, but the resolve is growing and that resolve is going to create problems for those leaders whose only concerns are those related to power as opposed to service and to results.

Our educational leadership is showing new signs of enlightenment which is many steps above that found during my tenure. Imagine, if you will, a coalition of higher education institutions led by the president of the University of Illinois and the executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education and in which a key staff role is played by an administrator from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Talk about integration! The coalition exhibited some awkwardness and confusion in execution, and some of the communication efforts attempted by the coalition misfired. The messages which higher education sends need to speak to the needs and interests of the citizens of Illinois rather than to the needs and interests of the institutions, and the development of those messages will take some time and continued effort. So, the hoped for and necessary increase in the state income tax toward which the group was working has not yet come to pass, but the formation of the coalition is in itself an important and significant outcome.

And I find in business leaders throughout Illinois who are beginning in increasing numbers to realize that there are a few things in life worse than a slight increase in taxes. Business leaders will begin to demand changes and to support funding for those changes when it is clear to them that the status quo leads to a loss in their competitive edge. When inadequacies in our education system and in our road system and in our public safety system and in our social service system lead to the loss of business in Illinois to other states and to other nations, business leadership will join in the demand for improvements. The evidence is growing that that time is fast approaching if not already here.

Illinois is a wonderful place. The people are more civil than the denizens of the East Coast and are more energetic than the sunlovers of the South and Southwest. The natural and human resources are many and great, and the location in the heartland of the nation is unbeatable. Only we can beat ourselves. This Janus intends to stick around and try to play a role in seeing that we do not do that unthinkable thing.□

Formerly the president of the University of Illinois, John E. Corbally is retiring this year as president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has been a leader in the efforts to change public school education in Illinois, particularly in Chicago.

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