When Elders Error, Part I

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When Elders Error, Part I

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on June 04, 2015 FREE Insights

When Elders Error, Part I

I have long respected the wisdom of elders. f.n. Of course not all elderly are wise and even the wisest among them make occasional mistakes. An important challenge for a young person is to know when to accept and when to reject their advice. I was extremely lucky when I did so, against their counsel, coming to Bozeman.

My graduate advisors at Indiana University were quite distinguished. One, Prof. Eleanor Ostrom, later won a Nobel Prize in economics. When such accomplished individuals error in giving well-intended advice to students they mentor, it is often because they extrapolate from the world they know to something quite different.

Academics are quite sensitive to rank within and among institutions. They gain prestige when high-ranking schools hire their Ph. D. students. It's not just size of the school, Amherst trumps Alabama. Nor is it location, Michigan beats Miami. And it is surely not the quality of education students receive at the prospective schools.

I never heard a positive mention of this feature. Rather promising grad students hear some version of this: "Don't even consider accepting an offer from that school. It has notoriously high teaching loads. To rise in academia, you need time to do research and get your work published in leading journals."

Here is what really counts when selecting a college or university position. First is the professional reputation of faculty: Where did they earn their degrees? Teaching load is indeed important, the lower the better. Financial support for research and writing is one key to success. Independence from political interference is critical to scholarly integrity. (I ultimately learned Montana State University wouldn't demonstrate that quality.)

Another important feature of a school is the number and status of visiting scholars and public intellectuals. In terms of quality of life, New Haven isn't among America's top100 cities. Yet a great many leading academics from around the world happily visit Yale.

My mentors strongly suggested I accept such a school, one attracting an endless stream of high quality visitors. This fosters networks with academic leaders. And this leads to grants, invitations to lecture in attractive places such as Aix-en-Provence, and invited publications. It becomes a virtuous upward cycle.

In 1970, when I decided to come here, MSU ranked low on all of these positive qualities. Hence, my graduate advisors were unanimous in their opposition to MSU. They believed I would have far better opportunities elsewhere. Better, however, depends on taste and expectations. I'd far rather be in Bozeman than Boston.

In 2015 it is hard for some visitors to believe that Bozeman is a former cow town with a small ag and engineering school lacking a strong national reputation. In 1970 professors didn't send promising, newly minted, Ph.D.s to such a place. Their advice was surely well intended, they had my best interest at heart. However my tastes differed from theirs and I envisioned different opportunities.

I had rejected the 1960s' collectivist culture and had strong location preferences. In addition to a university, my vision of good living required agriculture, timberland, open space, and much outdoor recreation. Also, I had enjoyed extremely generous foundation support while a graduate student. (I actually took a pay cut when coming to MSU. My salary here was less than my NSF post-doc stipend.) My professors believed that success could only be sustained if I went to a highly ranked school.

However the world changed and did so to my distinct advantage. While the Ford and Rockefeller foundations had supported my graduate program, several new foundations and trusts were created or expanded in the 1970s. Four of them, Earheart, Olin, Goodrich, and M. J. Murdock, supported my efforts to explain harmonies among responsible liberty, environmental quality, and modest prosperity. Of them, the Murdock Trust had the greatest impact. My next Insight explains how this occurred.

f.n.    Wisdom of the Elders: Lessons from Yellowstone National Park for managing our lands of romance

This project is being designed around a FREE Policy Salon. From this we will produce a short video series featuring discussions with individuals, key salon speakers, who led three important changes in park and wild land management. The changes are the let-burn fire policy, grizzly bear recovery, and reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. The target audience for the video series will be college courses and public and private land managers.

This project is a continuation of FREE’s work with MSU faculty member Jerry Johnson and will involve FREE’s student intern (Valerie Sigler) from MSU’s Honors College. 

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