College and University Presidents Discuss Higher Ed’s Role in Serving the Public Good
College and University Presidents Discuss Higher Ed’s Role in Serving the Public GoodRobert Fuller, Director, Executive Communications
One size does not fit all.
That was the overarching message participants at the Higher Ed Colloquium received from the “Conversation with Presidents” that opened the first full day of events On January 10th in Delray Beach, FL. Following Paul Luna’s keynote the previous evening, during which he challenged the audience of higher education professionals to address the needs of all students, the session invited a careful and critical look into how individual student populations may influence institutional policy and culture rather than the other way around. Catharine Bond Hill, Wallace D. Loh, and Michael A. Sorrell, presidents of Vassar College, the University of Maryland, and Paul Quinn College, respectively, each offered ideas and advice that, though sometimes seemingly at odds, have contributed significantly to the success of their particular institution – success defined largely by their ability to produce graduates who are both employable and civic-minded.
Jim Montoya, the College Board’s vice president for higher education and international outreach, asked the panel a broad but daunting question: “How do colleges and universities need to step it up?” It turns out that the different answers the presidents gave were shaped by a shared goal: to do what is best for the communities they serve.
For President Sorrell, that means placing a very conscious effort on confronting the issues that most directly affect the low-income students in his care. And in their case, he says, their lives will be changed most by changing the urban environment in which they live.
“We’ve decided to marry education with the public good, treat it as its own educational endeavor,” said Sorrell. “The public good occurs when you actually weigh into the issues and solve them. The needs of the community supersede the individual.” As an example, Sorrell highlighted the dismantling of Paul Quinn’s football program and the transformation of its football field into an organic urban farm that now serves the local community, otherwise classified as a food desert.
Innovation and entrepreneurship for the sake of the public good was also a theme of President Loh’s remarks. Loh likewise singled out a nutrition-related project at the University of Maryland, the Food Recovery Network, which provides food that would otherwise go to waste to people in need. But innovation and entrepreneurship should be the watchwords of the university, said Loh, primarily to solve “the biggest issue of the 21st century: jobs, jobs, jobs.” At a large economically diverse institution like the University of Maryland, he argued, it is imperative to conceive of ways to educate everyone better, and at a lower cost for the more financially strapped. “Why are the low income students subsidizing the wealthy?” he asked. “I think we should raise tuition to help the low income students. Institutions must have autonomy [to make these decisions].”
President Hill warned that increasing income inequality will lead to problems greater than personal student debt. The likelihood that students from low income families will have access to educational opportunity at all, she said, is becoming ever more doubtful. As a result, “I think we’ll see social stresses that will make this a country we don’t want to live in.
“How can we make sure higher ed is part of the solution, and not reinforcing societal problems?” Hill asked. “How do we frame this argument at the local level to get our states to reinvest in our students education as part of the public good?”
Hill agreed that serving one’s students and serving the larger good are not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, that you can’t do one without the other. “We have on obligation, even as a private institution, to serve the public interest,” she said.