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Thoughts on Thinking: Cary Fraser Reminds Penn State What It Could Be

on September 19, 2011 8:03 AM

The Penn State freshman was at a loss, frustrated and exasperated.

"I don't understand," she told the professor of her first-year seminar. "You want us to think."

She was right about that: Cary F. Fraser wanted all his Penn State students to think -- whether they wanted to or not.

"I said (to her): 'If you have a brain between your ears, you have to think,'" he recalled, recounting the 2009 exchange.

For 15 years here, Fraser, an associate professor in the College of the Liberal Arts, waged the good fight against intellectual laziness and apathy. He put his students in a position "where they had to respond," as he explained to me recently -- that is, to develop their critical-thinking skills.

He came to Penn State believing that he would find a serious focus on undergraduate education. But he soon discovered a university culture that too often overlooks that central function -- undergraduate education -- while getting "carried away with" the research elements of its mission, Fraser said.

Simply put: Penn State needs to rethink undergraduate education; to put the intersection of society and science in a brighter limelight; and to build -- seriously build -- students' intellectual muscle to handle future global challenges that they can't yet envision, he told me.

"Students who are being trained today will have to deal with problems that we can't imagine now," Fraser said.

And that, needless to say, will require the ability to think.

***

Fortunately for the youth of Belize, Fraser is putting his talents to use as the new president at the University of Belize. His work there began last month.

Regrettably for Penn Staters, that also means Fraser has departed Pennsylvania and his role here.

Beyond The Daily Collegian, this website and separate news accounts from Belize itself, his career change has generated unfathomably little media attention. Penn State Live, the university's official news website and cornerstone of Old Main-sanctioned publicity, hasn't posted so much as a news brief about Fraser's new, high-profile appointment.

With that as a backdrop, I sat down for an extended conversation with him last month at a popular downtown deli, right before he left State College.

I wanted to know: What's pushing Fraser -- a former advisor of the university Black Caucus, and a onetime director of the university's Africana Research Center -- away from Penn State?

A Guyanese national, he said he always wanted to return to the Caribbean once his daughter graduated from college. She did so last year.

But "the current institutional crisis Penn State is suffering provided the incentive" to leave, Fraser went on.

Specifically, he spoke of the roughly $1 billion debt on the university's books. And he spoke of Gov. Tom Corbett's 2011 budget proposal to cut more than 50 percent of the university's state support.

That proposal was ultimately moderated to a 19- to 20-percent cut. Still, "I think (the Corbett proposal) sent a very clear signal" about what's ahead for Penn State, Fraser said.

Meanwhile, he said, Belize, in Central America, is actually committed to growing its public education system, including its higher-education offerings.

At the University of Belize, a system that includes about 4,000 undergraduates, Fraser is charged with expanding access for the country's roughly 330,000 citizens. It's a primarily government-funded operation -- just 11 years old, but with a defining mission to uplift disadvantaged students.

Sound familiar?

***

Fraser knows what it's like. He came from modest means himself, at one point having taught high school during the day while taking college courses at night.

An absence of resources, he believes, makes people creative and forces them to organize their time effectively.

But in the U.S., students are too often "not substantially encouraged to use time effectively," Fraser said.

And without the ability to manage that most precious of commodities, he went on, it's increasingly difficult for critical thinking to flourish.

He wrung his hands over stream-of-consciousness-style student writing that landed on his desk here. He found it very strange, this relatively uncritical composition that serves "only to indulge yourself."

The deficiencies of undergraduate education should be a significant concern for U.S. universities' graduate and research arms, too, Fraser said.

After all, without outstanding undergraduate education as a foundation, how will would-be graduate students and faculty members mature well enough to solve the problems of the next generation?

"I think that, in the U.S., there has been a failure to understand that education is a multi-stage process," Fraser said.

***

I know how this all may sound: a former employee delivering criticism.

But remember: I asked him.

We talked nearly as much about the University of Belize as we did about Penn State. Where Penn State, in some ways, bears the burden of tradition, the University of Belize's traditions have yet to be written. Fraser wants to help guide intellectual underpinnings there that will foment critical thinking for the duration -- and refuse to yield on undergraduate education.

His approach to academic leadership also puts a premium on empowering faculty members, not so much on the administration. That effort, in turn, will help empower students, too, Fraser said.

All that empowerment, he thinks, should set the groundwork not only for transforming individuals, but also for transforming society at large.

***

There's hope in this story -- and not just for Belize, which scored a coup in Fraser's hiring.

The hope here is for Penn State, too.

The hope -- and inspiration -- is in faculty members, radical and otherwise, unafraid to speak out about what they see.

The hope is in Penn State's land-grant mission, in its fundamental history and mission, which seem to be gaining resurgent attention in public discussion across the board.

The hope is in a collective awareness and introspection that professors like Fraser encourage -- even if they don't make the official, institutional news.

But the shame -- well, the shame is that Cary Fraser is gone from our midst. The shame is that there wasn't enough of a draw here for him to stay.

For faculty leaders of Fraser's ethics and ability, Penn State should be a pinnacle.

I cling to the hope that it will be.

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