Clarity of mission

In a week when thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest, two essays about the state of higher education used provocative, poster-worthy questions for their titles. The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can have the effect of smugly shutting down a conversation. These two essays, however, have the opposite effect: they open up the set of concerns and direct us to think carefully about how we want to proceed. Both, in their own way, call us back to a sense of institutional mission.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wonders if this is “The End of College as We Knew It?” He relays what most of us already know—that colleges and universities are in serious trouble and the humanities in particular are in peril. On top of those longstanding threats, the realities of the COVID-19 virus and the grim timelines of possible containment mean that the fall and coming academic year are bleak, because colleges are unfortunately “theaters of contagion.”

But in this same essay, Bruni offers a pointed defense of the liberal arts and why they are needed now, more than ever. He quotes Brian Rosenberg who recently retired as the president of Macalester College and in an exchange of emails with Bruni had written:

A society without a grounding in ethics, self-reflection, empathy and beauty is one that has lost its way.

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College

Bruni goes on to mention several students who exemplify how a solid grounding in the humanities, even through general education courses if not through coursework toward a major, yields “broadly educated, deeply reflective citizens,” precisely the kind of citizenry and leadership that this moment requires. Matt Schmitz, a student at Ursinus College majoring in psychology and educational studies, describes what he learned from reading about Galileo, “a window into humans’ investment in established fictions over discomfiting truths.” Without the humanities, Schmitz says, “humanity would be left to wander from day to day and problem to problem.”

Later in the essay, Bruni writes:

A vaccine for the coronavirus won’t inoculate anyone against the ideological arrogance, conspiracy theories and other internet-abetted passions and prejudices that drive Americans apart. But the perspective, discernment and skepticism that a liberal arts education can nurture just might.

Frank Bruni, “The End of College as We Knew It?” New York Times, 4 June 2020.

The thinkers central to that liberal arts education invoked by Bruni tend toward the classical white-male canon (Homer, Melville, Chekhov), although at one point he suggests the triad of Martin Luther King, Jr., Plato, and Jane Austen as preferable to Pfizer, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. The content of our curriculums needs to be regularly re-examined and refreshed, and fortunately, many of our colleagues are actively sharing reading lists for precisely that purpose.

In “Will the University That Survives Have Been Worth Saving?” published in the Chronicle this week, Rebecca Kolins Givan goes one step further. She calls out administrators and pundits who seem to be more focused on “maximum return on investment” than decision-making that comes from a place of clarity about our core values:

We should lead with our values and our values should lead us. If our core values are sacrificed to save our universities through a single-minded focus on maximizing revenue, will the institutions that emerge have been worth saving?

Rebecca Kolins Givan, “Will the University That Survives Have Been Worth Saving?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 June 2020.

Expressing sympathy for deans and program chairs who are “forced to choose between wretched options” in this current climate, Kolins Givan also calls upon us to not lose sight of our mission:

If the university completes its transformation in to whatever the spreadsheets and analytics tell it to be, if its mission is reduced to work-force-training and extracting tuition from students (who will work for years to pay off the debt they took on for the privilege), then continuing to call such institutions “universities” will be a cruel joke.

Rebecca Kolins Givan, “Will the University That Survives Have Been Worth Saving?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 June 2020.

Her essay concludes with a list of basic commitments that express “the highest mission of the university” and which should inform decision-making. The list includes:

  • A robust, broad curriculum
  • Accessibility and affordability
  • A commitment to equity and diversity
  • Fair employment for those who do the work of the university, and
  • Responsible citizenship in our cities and towns.

What would your own institution’s list look like? What values are driving the decision-making right now?

Both essays are well worth your time. Just as our individual callings are likely undergoing a “refiner’s fire,” so too are our institutions. What will be revealed through our responses and decisions?

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