A Culinary Fable for Higher Education

 

In the city of Aroga, there were many, many restaurants.  They served diverse cuisine, and a diverse clientele.  Each maintained its distinctive character, and had a loyal, overlapping, following.  The Maisonnette D’Aroga served from the authentic pages of L’Escoffier, and was THE place to go for those seeking the best or seeking to make the best impression.  Gert’s Grill served wicked BLT’s, waffles and stew – and two could walk out after a satisfying meal with still enough change from a $20 to get a couple of ice cream cones on the way down the street.  Sometimes when one wanted to put on finery, the exclusive French restaurant suited one’s taste.  Sometimes when one wanted a simple greasy spoon the day before payday, the local hash house was just the right thing.

The local newspaper decided to hire a restaurant critic – the first ever in Aroga.  The critic had superb credentials, having studied at the Massachusetts Exemplary Culinary Criticism Academy, and having interned at papers in the northeast and in the San Francisco Bay.  Surely he was, so believed the editor of the Aroga Inquirer, the person to bring excellence, rationality and value to the hectic restaurant scene. 

And so “Drew“Andrew Solunstorp went about the task of eating in every restaurant in Aroga, inquiring about the quality of the raw material that each restaurant used, the quality of its china (or lack thereof), of its “ambience” and of the value.  And, also the fidelity of the cuisine of the each restaurant to the best in its class in the country.  Certain restaurants were first tier, certain were second tier, etc; and the select were in the top 10 of the Solunstorp Report.

Many diners of Aroga were enthralled by the Solunstorp Restaurant Reports; these reviews appeared so well reasoned and articulate, and clearly someone trained at MECCA and familiar with the global restaurant scene had the wisdom that they lacked.  Why waste time and money at restaurants that did not rank high?  After all, who would want to be seen coming out of a third or even a second tier restaurant.  So the top 10 restaurants – where in the past one could make a noon reservation for an evening dinner – were now booked two weeks in advance, and in certain third tier restaurants one could roll a bowling ball down the aisle at 8pm.  It was even rumored that some of these unfortunates would be closed down and converted into parking lots or landfills.

As time went by, one found that it became more and more difficult to get hash and eggs, egg rolls or macrobiotic vegetarian cooking.  After all (according to Drew) such restaurants simply did not “cut the mustard” and the Arogaites did not want to patronize these “lower tier” enterprises.   So, the dining scene in Aroga became bimodal, with elegant continental cuisine and fast food franchises, but little in the middle.  It was hard to find a good submarine sandwich anymore, and the businessmen missed the little “hole in the wall” that served great fish sandwiches every Friday.

Even those that survived found that they could only exist if they changed to suit Solunstorp’s taste.  He did not care for meat unless it came from cattle free-ranged in North Dakota, or for anything but marigold-yellow chickens, or for carnations on tables (rather than tulips).  Catfish and sloppy joes were so declassee; not to mention Gert’s scrapple or Hank’s Hashhouse red beans and rice.  So inevitably, menus started showcasing beef from North Dakota, yellow-fleshed chicken … and the funeral directors in Agora were delighted to find that carnations could be obtained much more cheaply. But the local butchers and florists and other vendors who did not fully stock items favored by Solunstorp also found themselves at the brink of failure.  The variety of offerings by the proprietors diminished to conform to Solunstorp’s idiosyncrasies.

But just as Gert and Hank were about to fold their tents and close up, they wondered  “why do we have to tolerate this dictatorship of taste and excellence”. Some customers weight some attributes differently, and even have different preferences on different days.  Why not let the customers know the consequences that arise from single-minded adherence to a sole arbiter of excellence and taste.  Shouldn’t people know that there is virtue in maintaining this diversity, and realize that not every proprietor can be in the top 10 on every scale (indeed there are some who can be “good” and even highly valued by particular customers without being in the top on any scale).  So scrimping their resources, they were able to inform the Arogaites of what would continue to happen by relying upon a single critic as the one metric that would be relied upon in their dining decision.  And indeed, the Aroga Inquirer saw what was happening and the editor (a bit of a gourmet herself) decided to hire a suite of additional restaurant critics (including some of the restaurateurs and even “ordinary” customers) to provide a richer perspective on the dining scene. 

And now, 10 years later, although Gert and Hank have both passed on to the eternal griddle, their kitchens and dining rooms are even more vibrant than ever – their sons, daughters, and cousins deciding to maintain their families establishments.  Yes, the Maisonnette continues.   But there is also a healthy heterogeneity of choices from the mundane to the marvelous (and the marvelous include restaurants to all tastes and prices).  The dining scene in Aroga truly flourishes again.

The academy has been participating in the disestablishment of our own diversity and strength by not simply tolerating but indeed cooperating with the activities of a few ratings and rankings compilers.  Many institutions have consciously and overtly tailored their development, hiring, promotion, tenure and fundraising decisions not to a collegially reached set of objectives and priorities, but to a perception of what they could do to raise their position in these ratings and rankings.

In the opinion of this writer, the net effect is unhealthy for the national academic enterprise.  If all the flowers in a field were tulips, the vista would be boring; if the only meat in a supermarket was prime filet, the menu would be limited and costly; if all of our students were brown eyed males from two parent families where both parents were attorneys or MBA’s, it would be a pretty dull classroom; if everyone only bought stocks that had gotten “A” ratings by a single broker, innovation and risk-taking would be stifled. 

Is it not leading to a pretty limited academic enterprise with many universities striving to achieve against the same metric?  I certainly think so.

Presidents, provosts, deans, department heads and faculty must resist the loss of academic diversity to which this lemming-like rush will lead. We have a responsibility to educate our constituents (students, parents, trustees, donors, legislators and alumni) that evaluating the “quality” of a college or university is a much more multidimensional, multiobjective and complex task than evaluating the ranking of a basketball team.  If we believe that universities and academic programs should set their own local objectives and measure their achievements with respect to these local objectives (as is indeed the perspective of many accrediting organizations) then how can we possibly tolerate, support and sustain a single (or even a small number of) ranking(s) that purport(s) to measure the quality of universities across the United States?  Yes, we need standards and guidelines and accreditation to assure competent performance and honest management, as much as local restaurants need health departments and police forces to assure minimal levels of sanitation and absence of fraudulent behavior.  But we do not need one (or a small number) of external raters to be the metric by which we all are measured.

 

Who is ready to be Gert and Hank?