Vocation and the Future of Higher Education

Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 2.07.31 PMHigher education is facing a number of structural challenges, from a change in demographics to the rising costs of retaining full-time faculty. These challenges are particularly acute in small colleges and universities that offer a mentor-intensive liberal arts education but face strong competition and financial challenges. I sat down with Randy Bass, Vice Provost of Education at Georgetown University, to talk about his new book (co-authored with Bret Eynon) “Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem” (AACU, 2016) which addresses many of the challenges facing higher education. Randy is part of Georgetown’s “Designing the Future(s)” initiative and has become a thought leader in the realm of the future of higher education, thinking critically about what a liberal arts education will look like in the years ahead.  While Randy works at Georgetown, he has helped many small colleges and universities strategize about how to build innovative and sustainable futures.

bass-quote.jpgI asked Randy about his thoughts on the meaning of “vocation” and he explained that “vocation is ultimately integrative and aligning who you are with who you want to be.  It is the point of integration between you and the world.” Finding career is not only about finding a job but rather finding one’s purpose and passion. However, vocation is not only personal but listens to the world and its needs. Randy continued, “You cannot be called to be something you are not good at. Vocation implies that you can be effective in the world.”  But vocation is also about the future. As Randy asked, “What does it mean to be in the vocation in this moment?  What does a person need to live a purposeful life that will thrive in 2030?  In a world shaped by artificial intelligence?”

For Randy, vocation is not only an individual necessity but also an institutional imperative, one in which colleges and universities look deeply at their cores values and examine what they are particularly good at. David Cunningham makes a similar point in his chapter, “Colleges Have Callings, Too: Vocational Reflection at the institutional Level” in Vocation Across the Academy.  As Cunningham explains, “students and educators cannot be expected to embrace the vocational discernment process with energy and passion unless the institution itself has given some serious though to its own callings.” He goes on to write, “colleges and universities that hope to encourage vocational reflection and discernment among their students will need to lead by example.”

Colleges must ask themselves, “What do we do that is unique and distinct?  What are the most important and most mentor-intensive type activities we perform?”  Randy believes that small colleges can distinguish themselves with the “expansion of experiential learning and investing in the most mentor-intensive aspects” or areas that cannot be replaced with machines.  Once institutions discover what truly makes them distinct they must cut things that are replicable or will be performed by robots in the future.  Being focused, intentional and nimble is essential in building a sustainable future.

Small colleges and universities traditionally do well in creating environments where mentoring relationships can develop organically, something critical for student flourishing.  For example, a recent Gallup-Purdue poll on life after college surveyed 30,000 undergraduates 20 years after college and asked if they are flourishing in their lives and engaged in their work; they then asked about their college experience. Their key finding was that respondents were 74% more likely to be engaged in their work and flourishing if they had 1) an adult mentor who cared about their hopes and dreams and 2) worked on a sustained project for a semester or longer.

Nonetheless, to continue to effectively mentor students, small colleges and universities need to balance their histories and traditions with the digital and automated future.  Many smaller colleges and universities exist to preserve a unique past and culture and are at times reluctant to change.  Randy values the traditions and histories of our different colleges but asks how they are relevant to the future.  As Randy succinctly put it, “the past has to serve an integrative future.”  Small colleges and universities must reimagine their pasts to find innovative solutions to the world’s problems and confront the challenges of tomorrow.  Randy’s works would be highly recommended to those thinking critically about the future of higher education.

Younus Mirza is the author of “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To learn more about his scholarship and teaching, please check out his website at http://dryounusmirza.com  

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