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Tumult at the top

Randall F. Clemens

I taught in a district that was a punching bag for critics of underperforming schools. Scandals appeared in local newspapers and on nightly news reports. In my school, teachers then debated the issues, including cheating, sexual assaults, theft, embezzlement, bribery, racism, dropout factories, fired or defecting leaders, and on and on and on. 

At a certain point, dysfunction and scandal became integral parts of our school culture. The best teachers and students were not defined by the merit of their work; they were praised for their ability to excel in such bleak conditions. The most effective administrators were not identified for their ability as change agents; they were recognized for their skills at navigating flawed and corrupt bureaucratic systems. Worst of all, many students stopped believing in education as the great equalizer and started opting out.

Postsecondary education had largely eluded the degree of scrutiny and criticism allotted to secondary education. While politicians targeted high schools for placing the nation at risk, universities continued to be the international standard for academic rigor. As Bill pointed out in a previous blog, scrutiny—and all of the bombastic language and poorly chosen metaphors that come with it—has found higher education.

With student debt at nearly $1 trillion, college is no longer a sure bet. Scandals are only heightening the sense that something is awry. Imagine you are a student who is incurring over $100,000 in debt at USC and you regularly get racially profiled. Even more, imagine you came from a school like the one in which I taught. How would you feel?

St. John’s University, where I am employed, has endured a leadership scandal this year. I asked a few undergrads—both first-generation students from low-income households— about the president’s recent retirement. One student replied, “They talk about all these [Catholic] ideals, then a guy’s gonna take a Rolex.” His friend laughed: “I’d just be happy if my professor answered an email.”

From community outreach to applied scholarship, universities are involved in substantial and beneficial endeavors. For the most part, higher education still represents hope and opportunity. However, one injustice often overshadows one thousand good deeds.

I don’t know what higher education will like in five, ten, or fifty years. The sky isn’t falling (which may be just as worrisome as if it were). Large universities motor on and tuitions and student debts continue to increase. I do know that it’s time to reconnect with core values such as truth and justice and refocus on essential tasks like teaching, learning, and service.