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The Modern American University: An Insider’s View

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These are my observations from the field. I have admiration in abundance for the policies supporting access, affordability, and accountability; I feel anguish for what I see as violations of the basic public trust bestowed upon institutions; and I have hope for changes that bear great potential for improvements in student access and learning, and therefore society as a whole


The posting below is a set of reflections on the modern American university by Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus and University Professor, Adelphi University, and Frederick Lewis Allen Room Scholar, the New York Public Library. It is a summary of the full article, which can be found at Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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The Modern American University: An Insider’s View


What Is It That I Admire

There is much to admire about U. S. higher education, but also much that I abhor and still more that I anticipate.

Higher education includes these key features. It is curator of that which was created and is known, whether on paper, clay or discs; it is creator of the new, whether facts, interpretations, fanciful musings, or new professionals; and it is a critic of the status quo, asking “why” and “why not?”

The vision of the university, and here I include four-year and two-year colleges, is to be dedicated to the search for truth and to the preparation of students to be able to distinguish between and among empirical evidence, epiphanies, and emotion or superstition.

The goals of higher education have been to widen access, especially at the undergraduate level, to students of all ages and backgrounds, whether enrolled full-time or part-time, and to promote excellence in teaching and research for the common good. In the beginning, it was thought that public higher education in the U. S. should be free, and for many years major systems of higher education, such as those in California and New York City, were free. Today, public institutions offer subsidized tuition to all students regardless of family wealth, but for many low-income families this is still not sufficient.

Excellence in graduate teaching and research have been priorities, and we can think of the numerous ways in which university-based research in the life sciences, physics, history, and archaeology have advanced our well-being and our understanding of what it means to be human.

Higher education in the U.S. has a rich history of evolution and expansion, both in borrowing from other countries and in developing new models. Over the past 150-plus years alone, colleges and universities have responded to societal needs by creating, revising, expanding, and eliminating subjects of major study.

Colleges and universities were founded by visionaries and built by visionary leaders to serve particular populations and priorities. Harvard was the first college, founded in 1636, with a mission to provide a “learned ministry” through the “transformative power of the arts and sciences.”

I admire the vision of these founders, and the many others who started colleges with a commitment to a liberal arts core in small towns and emerging cities across the country. The increasing number of students attending high school, the need for teachers, ministers, and doctors, and the growing need for scientific agriculture, mining, and manufacturing, all fostered the creation of new colleges, just as in earlier times federal initiatives for population dispersal to the west had fostered new institutions to both attract new citizens and be closer to population clusters.

By the time President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, there were some 200 colleges in the country, most of them private and church-affiliated. The “land grants” were sold and used by the states to start new schools or to fund existing state or private colleges in order to create more schools of agriculture and mechanic arts.

These and many other features are what I admire about higher education. It is the historic focus on expansion of opportunity, the commitment to high quality, the governmental policies supporting higher education for a public purpose, private philanthropy with a commitment to the advancement of the citizenry, and institutional missions designed to serve the growing nation that helped make higher education in the U.S. the gem that it is in so many ways, but not all.

What Is It That Causes Me Anguish?

This vision has not been fulfilled as fully as it might have been. In addition to the variable of population as an influence on higher education institution location and growth, there are two other powerful forces: politics and public investment.

In the United States, as elsewhere, the original sins of racism and slavery, instruments of public policy and investment, denied African-Americans and Native Americans access to higher education. It was not until the second Morrill Act of 1890 that opportunities increased, with federal appropriations to support predominately African-American colleges in the seventeen still segregated slave states which continued to exclude these students from the original Land Grant institutions. This support, which did not attempt to enforce integration, is part of the 400-year legacy of racism and slavery that continues to this day in terms of African-American family income and wealth, housing choices, access to good schools, and a tradition of college attendance.

Therefore, given my belief that higher education is an instrument for democracy, one cause of grief is the increasing evidence that legislators and their backers lack a commitment to access for those who come from less-advantaged backgrounds.

For example, the federal Pell Grant program was designed to provide tuition assistance to families at the median household income or lower, including the children of minority families. Yet today in the United States, a child born into a family in the top 25% of family income has a nearly 90% chance of graduating from a four-year college, while a child with the same native ability born into a family whose income is in the lowest 25% has less than a 10% chance of earning a baccalaureate degree.

There is more to be said about what causes me grief, including student loan debt, which is greatly misunderstood; low graduation rates; for-profit colleges engaging in predatory behavior, poorly prepared trustees, tuition discounting and merit scholarships; priorities for big-time athletics; teacher preparation; remedial education; inadequate student credit transfer policies; a limited view of the value of research, scholarship and creative activity; the lack of inter-institutional collaboration on degree programs and community improvement projects; the lack of support for part-time faculty; foundation grants that can prompt fast action but do not provide sustainable support; and more. (See the full article for greater detail.)

What Is It That I Anticipate?

Most of the forces shaping the future of higher education in the U. S. are known. Surely they include demographic shifts, especially with regard to the number of high school graduates, the age of potential college-goers, the number of students who will be first in their families to attempt post-high school education, the income and employment status of students, changing career choices, and whether students will study full-time or part-time, be in residence on campus, live off-campus, or attend online.

There also are global forces, including the movement of students and faculty between and among countries, information and data moving freely, and institutions starting campuses and partnerships with universities in other countries.

Some forecasters have proposed varying models of institutional development for the future, including scaling back in size of enrollment, greater specialization and focus, becoming fully online, or becoming a hybrid college combining elements of all types.

Another force with which to contend is in the changing priorities for public funding. With prisons, security, military budgets, and pensions competing with funding for public higher education, we must find more effective ways to change the cost structure of colleges and universities, especially as we examine tuition discounting and merit aid as well as the loss of funding for research, and do even more to advocate the public benefits of higher education. We also must find new sources of revenue beyond that which students can bring without diminishing institutional commitments to mission and purpose.

Finally, a major force for change is found in the technological breakthroughs that can support teaching and learning and back office processing functions, as well as prompt changes in policies for course credit transfer, new forms of credentialing, and much more.

The correlation between college attainment, unemployment rates, and national economic growth is strong. However, to reach President Obama’s goal for a college-educated public, we will need to increase the number of people with at least some college by 50%, and include adult student enrollment in campus planning to a much greater degree than we do now. It will not be possible to achieve his goal with high school students alone unless there are major policy changes in immigration policies.

If we look again at the variables of population, politics, and public investment that seem to have shaped the earliest years of university growth in the United States, what might these variables suggest about the future?

We certainly face issues of population, but in this case not about the movement of populations to frontier territories. Today, it is about how to provide education for advancement to populations of low-income, minority and immigrant young people and adults, many of whom live in inner cities but others of whom live in pockets of rural poverty, “education deserts,” with little access to postsecondary opportunities. Given their educational backgrounds, lack of academic readiness and, in many cases, lack of motivation for advanced education, it is unlikely in the near term that online learning approaches will either appeal to them or benefit them. Face-to-face learning is usually the better choice.

In order for the United State to increase the rate of post-high school attainment, five principal actors must work in concert. First, our society must ensure that all young people can enter a neighborhood school ready to learn, following a good night’s sleep after studying in a quiet place and having a proper breakfast.

Second, the nation’s schools, from kindergarten through high school, must ensure that all students learn to study and acquire the knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary to be active citizens as well as college and career ready. This takes more than testing.

Third, state governments must adequately fund K-12 schools and public colleges and universities as well as need-based financial aid programs so that access and affordability represent promises fulfilled, not just slogans for a campaign.

Fourth, the federal government must fund the Pell Grant program so that it covers the basic costs of a public university and make income-based loan repayment programs universal. This, too, takes tax policy.

Fifth, colleges and universities should certainly be more rigorous in examining the campus cost structure, but also should ensure that institutional financial aid, even that which is provided through tuition discounting, is focused on providing access to the financially neediest students. (Heller.)

As part of their responsibilities, colleges should also distinguish between advanced education and vocational training. To me, education is about questions, “What if,” and not about, “How to,” which is the province of training. Students are no longer bound by the answers imposed by their culture, but in James Baldwin’s phrase, learn to “see the questions hidden by the answers”. We must learn to see the “teachable” moments in campus debates, to be passionate without being shrill. (Mitchell.) This is an education for a life of questions, a life with purpose, an ethical education in pursuit of advancements in society as well as in oneself.

An education such as this also requires advancements in critical reading, comprehensive listening, cogent writing, persuasive speaking, and proficiency in calculating results. This kind of education needs to include general and expert knowledge, abilities such as reasoning and a second language, and values such as respect for other opinions and the balance of community and individual interests.

In addition, students need development in these areas: disciplined work habits, time management, teamwork, leadership, community involvement through voluntarism, and how to live in and benefit from a multi-cultural society.

I think of this focus on questions and the development of these abilities and values as a “liberating education.” I believe that our mission as educators is to liberate students from their provincial backgrounds, no matter their age, national origin, or economic station as they prepare to become active as citizens as well as professionals in communities and places of employment where neighbors, colleagues, and customers are likely to be of a different background.

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

One way to think about this question of what colleges should teach and what students should study is to reflect on contemporary crises in finance, industry, and politics, and ask what lessons we have learned. A quick survey of the past decade shows that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked knowledge of history or historical analysis, did not have the personal or professional memory in which to place contemporary issues, and seem to have lacked the imagination and creative ability to question assumptions.

Finally, college and university presidents, and others, such as board members, should do more to tell the important story of higher education’s evolution and its benefits to society as well as to the individuals who live and vote in it. More of us should confront the often poorly informed criticisms of higher education, including those by the pundits who claim that this or that new development will make universities obsolete, and the corporate chiefs who claim that this generation of graduates is not educated for the work to be done while they gut company training programs so helpful to previous generations.

These investments in higher education that I advocate are for the security of a democratic society, not expenses to be added and cut as the political winds dictate. If we do not prepare our children to be ready for school; if our families and institutions are not prepared, to the fullest extent possible, to ensure that all students are ready to learn; if our public schools, colleges and universities are not adequately funded to fulfil their missions; if the federal government does not fund student aid appropriately; if our academic leaders do not embrace a “liberating education” for all students; if our campus leaders do not support the central missions of our institutions and advocate for the support of student learning for life, not just for earning a living, we will further blunt these central instruments of democracy and witness the further decline in our nation.


These are my observations from the field. I have admiration in abundance for the policies supporting access, affordability, and accountability; I feel anguish for what I see as violations of the basic public trust bestowed upon institutions; and I have hope for changes that bear great potential for improvements in student access and learning, and therefore society as a whole.


End Notes from original article

Boyer, Ernest. Scholarship Reconsidered. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for Teaching, 1990.

Cabranes, Jose A. “Myth and Reality of University Trusteeship in the Post-Enron Era.” Fordham Law Review, Volume 76, Issue 2, Article 15, 2007.

Dew, John. “Global, Mobile, Vertical, and Social: The College Campus of Tomorrow.” The Futurist, March-April 2010, page 46ff.

Heller, Donald E. “Why the U.S. isn’t likely to meet Obama’s goal on college graduation rates.” Hechinger Report, October 2, 2014.

NCES “Fast Facts,” 326.10.

Mitchell, Brian C. “Can America’s Colleges Teach Civility outside the Classroom?” Edvance Foundation, 2-22-16.

“Perspectives in Higher Education.” PWC.

Scott, Robert A. “The Modern American University: Observations from the Field.” Oxford Magazine, No. 365, Michaelmass Term, 2015.

Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey A. “What Makes Great Boards Great.” Harvard Business Review, September 2002.

The Institute for College Access & Success. 20.14 Quick Facts about Student Debt.