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The Modern American University: A Love Story

Tomorrow's Academy

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If a chamber of commerce, engaged in strategic planning, wanted to attract an entity that would employ highly educated workers, whose employees would engage in the community, whose activities would be sensitive to the environment and contribute to the economy, and whose end results would be those in which all could be proud, they would recruit a university. 



Happy New Year to everyone!  The posting below is an overview of the modern American university and its leadership, roles and responsibilities. It is an extended abstract written for the TP eNewlsetter by the author of the article, The Modern American University: A Love Story by Robert A. Scott, president Adelphi University, Garden City, NY. The full article is from: "On the Horizon", Volume 18, Issue 4, (Fall 2010), pp. 294-307. For further information please contact the author at (


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Teaching the Teachers



Tomorrow's Academia

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The Modern American University: A Love Story


Why "Love Story"? I know higher education well enough for admiration; deeply enough for anguish; and sure enough for anticipation of a positive future. While there are many elements to lament, I think there is reason to believe in the idealism which has fueled the desire for learning in groups for over the millennia, and in a concomitant commitment to relevance which has been the essence of the American higher education journey.

The modern American college and university carry in them the DNA of an historic institution that fulfills three critical roles central to society:

*Curator of the past, society's memory, whether recorded in ink, clay, brass, or databases;

*Creator of the new, whether from a microscope slide or a new synthesis of theories on social phenomena; and

*Critic of the status quo, standing at the periphery of society, asking questions related to fair treatment, justice, equality, and "what if?"


This unique institution carries a covenant between those who form it and the public that gives it a charter, the major asset of each institution. The faculty may be the heart, and students the soul, but the license to award degrees and certificates is what gives the institution stature, credibility, relevance, and viability in the modern age.


Colleges and universities have evolved and developed, from an institution dedicated to preparing and perpetuating elite classes of professionals to one embraced by policy makers to promote social mobility; economic development; lifesaving medicines; smart, self-correcting materials; waterless crops, technicians of all types, and life-long learners. Universities are both "ambassadors" when they welcome students from other countries, and exporters who educate people from around the world who return home.


University graduates, no matter what their socio-economic origins, have lower unemployment, higher incomes, commit fewer crimes, and have a greater likelihood of civic participation. Colleges and universities are sources of intellectual achievement, cultural programming, entertainment, and facilities for public purposes.

Three themes have been dominant for several decades now, including access, affordability, and accountability or assessment. While universal access is not a reality, mass access is. Universities are vehicles for remaking society. A university is an institution committed to the transformation of lives through intellectual challenge and societal engagement. It is not like a trade school, emphasizing transactions and "how to," although in its mission for advancing knowledge, skills, abilities, and values, it is committed to the development of citizens able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks and goals.


For the individual, a university education is intended to be an investment in a lifetime, not an expense for a year. It is designed to prepare students not only for a job, but also for a series of careers, for an enriched life, even as it enhances the opportunities for life's riches.


If a chamber of commerce, engaged in strategic planning, wanted to attract an entity that would employ highly educated workers, whose employees would engage in the community, whose activities would be sensitive to the environment and contribute to the economy, and whose end results would be those in which all could be proud, they would recruit a university.


Higher education is a diverse enterprise, with multiple institutional types; students from every country and socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic group; faculty with diverse backgrounds, from pure academe to those who have changed careers multiple times; staff who are devoted to the enterprise and, knowing that the role of faculty is more central, nevertheless engage in a metaphorical organization of "lords, squires and yeomen"; and a curriculum that has evolved over time from an emphasis on the classical disciplines of language and reasoning to newer disciplines, such as real estate and emergency management.

There is considerable evidence that many employers want graduates with particular skills such as accounting, but the vast majority of employers want employees with a broad set of skills, and abilities, more emphasis on effective oral and written communication, critical thinking and reasoning in multiple settings, and the ability to be imaginative across cultural boundaries.


At the same time, increasing numbers of students say they want to develop a "meaningful philosophy of life," not just be "well-off financially." They want to pursue with passion a path that leads to personal satisfaction and fulfillment as well as material comfort. In other words, they want a course of study that combines what employers want and what they want. But what should they study? The path chosen should include preparation for a full, well-rounded life as an ethical professional, citizen and family member, and for work that has meaning and provides fulfillment. Such an education is as much about character and citizenship as it is about careers and commerce.


One way to think about this question is to reflect on contemporary issues and ask what lessons we have learned. A quick survey of the past several years would show that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked knowledge of history or historical analysis, and did not have the personal or professional memory in which to place contemporary issues. So, history is an essential subject, especially if we are to understand the different ways people "know" the truth and how they challenge assumptions and validate assertions.


The second area to develop is that of imagination. It seems clear in retrospect that even high-profile people confronted new problems without the ability to see connections among different variables, could not visualize or forecast directions, could not approach issues with creativity. They had not developed the capacity to wonder, to inquire, to experience discovery, to look, see and ask. These are the benefits of an education that liberates students from their provincial origins, from prejudices masquerading as principles, no matter what their nationality, socioeconomic status, age or religion, and uses various approaches, including the experimental, to teaching. They, and we, grow up in mostly isolated, two-generation, monocultural communities, and have little experience with those some think of as the "other." They lack a global perspective.


Using these thoughts as a guide, students and families should look at academic programs that have a strong grounding in the liberating arts and sciences, and that give the student an opportunity to master a subject matter to a sufficient degree to enter a profession either directly upon graduation or after graduate school, and gain a network of fellow students and alumni who can become life-long links to careers and social life. They will be composing a life even as they prepare to earn a living.


In each of these cases, the goal is to liberate students, to transform them into inquisitive, articulate, active, ethical citizens, able to consider more sophisticated levels of abstraction, distinguishing conclusions from premises, and the universal from the specific, not simply to engage them in a series of transactions, as if education were a commodity: select the correct answer and we will grant you a credit or a certificate.


One approach to such an education is to conceive the foundation courses in terms of three overlapping clusters of disciplines and topics. The first concerns the world we "meet" upon birth and childhood: nature, science, scientific inquiry. The second concerns the world we, as humans, "make": literature, history, economics, etc. The third cluster concerns the systems of thought by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make: i.e. law, morality, ethics, philosophy.


Now, the cynic will ask, what proportion of the college-going population is able to take advantage of these approaches to education? Well, why limit these approaches to the late teen-age years? Why not make them available to anyone, at any time?


Next, the question will be, how can we afford these approaches? Well, the professor or coach does not need to be a faculty member at a research-intensive university where those on the tenure-track are expected to raise a significant portion of their compensation from federal or corporate grants each year. We already have many examples of faculty prepared for this form of education, but become diverted from teaching because of a reward system modeled on that research-intensive university model. We know the benefits of a liberating education in terms of careers and citizenship. Historically, it was viewed as a public good, with public benefits. In recent years, as part of a general trend, notions of the "public" benefit have been replaced by the value of "private" gain, thus changing a 200-year old tradition in the United States.


This form of liberating education requires small learning communities, even within large campuses. It is about priority and political will more than about money. Models and missions matter. Focus and distinctiveness make a difference.


Has this idealized version of liberalizing education ever been realized? Probably, for a few students during a relatively brief period. For most of its 1000-plus year history, collegiate education has been designed to prepare elite professionals, including clergy and physicians. Even during the hey-day of higher education after World War II, what was called the liberal arts were mostly introductory courses designed more to prepare majors to pursue graduate study than to liberate minds and prepare generally educated citizens.


But this does not deny the value of the ideal, whose logic is powerful. So, the questions are, which students are best suited for such an education, and at what stage of life? In which institutions can such an education be provided?


While only a small proportion of students study at residential campus whose mission is parallel to this vision, this does not mean that the elements of such an approach cannot be provided to all. How? Consider this. The basic elements of small group discussions, focused on fundamental questions of meaning, grounded in the history of arts, literature, politics, and science, and promoting imaginative approaches to general and expert knowledge, skills, abilities, and values can be offered in a combination of venues. These include seminars, lectures, and on-line approaches, such as "blended" courses, in colleges of all types, community organizations, and adult education programs.

The faculty in such a setting will be more like professors in the 1950's, people with multidisciplinary backgrounds like David Riesman and Marshall Shulman, intellectuals, writers, and teachers, rather than narrowly focused specialists who have become the model. It is these latter who say they can get to their "work" when the students are gone.


Laboratories, libraries, galleries and museums can be found in local colleges, schools, communities, and companies, as integrated and as separate entities. Greater coordination between and among these institutions and organizations can result in greater efficiencies and reduced redundancies.


New approaches to the goals of socialization are already being pioneered by universities with largely commuter populations because it is known that such "bonding" leads to improved retention, success, and graduation. Clubs and organizations already have parallels in the broader community, so Rotary, Lions, Alpha Phi Alpha, and Links could include "college" students as active members, providing the outlet for service that campus organizations encourage.


In other countries, town teams provide the opportunity for amateur athletics that colleges include at an ever increasing expense for a small proportion of participants. Therefore, the ideals can be provided to larger populations of students even without thinking that small, residential colleges will be increased in number.


With such examples as possibilities, what is "on the horizon" for American higher education? Will there be as much change in the next 60 years as we have seen since the first G.I. Bill? Might we see as much change in the next 150 years as we have seen since the Morrill Land Grant Act? In both cases, radical changes in the structure, offerings, enrollments, services, governance, and financing of colleges and universities are now accepted as the norm.


Other features of higher education are a century old. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the "unbundling" of credentials and curricula, and the authority to certify credentials, and ever more strategic partnerships between campuses and companies, will lead inexorably to new opportunities for flexible, convenient, accessible, just-in-time, relevant and certified education and training in ways not now imaginable, but built on the foundations now visible.

This is my "love story" about higher education. I have admiration in abundance, anguish for what I see as violations to the basic public trust institutions require, and anticipation for changes that bear great potential for improved access, affordability, and accountability. We can reclaim a culture of conscience and civic responsibility.