The town of Wise (pop. 3286) is nestled in the hilly, half-spent coal fields of southwestern Virginia. It lacks the surface sophistication of a big city or the gentility of a classic American college town. There’s no obvious place on Main Street to buy a real latté. Wal-Mart is the retail destination of choice.
So Wise might seem the last place you’d expect to mourn a scientist, a neurobiologist, in fact, and a leader in public higher education.
But on Wise’s main commercial street earlier this month, the electronic message-board read simply: "Chancellor David Prior, 1943-2012. We will miss you."
My friend David died in office in his seventh year as head of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Established by the state in 1954 in response to petitions from the region, the campus still enrolls a large number of first-generation students from the coal-field towns even as its reputation as a first-rate liberal arts college grows further afield.
By all accounts, David gave the campus new focus, spirit and ambition – bringing Thomas Jefferson's dream of an educated citizenry to the mountains. He secured funds for new buildings. He promoted opportunities for undergraduate research and international travel. He taught, encouraged and wrote letters for students bound for medical school and other futures that might once have seemed out of reach to people from families like theirs. He reminded them to balance labs with literature.
With passion but not pretense, he also extended the college's outreach and welcome to the regional community.
On the day of his memorial service, townspeople began to gather two hours before the scheduled start at the convocation center, an impressive building designed to bring campus and community together. The student tuba ensemble played Amazing Grace. Local preachers wove affectionate anecdotes into their invocations. Academic dignitaries followed, including the past and current presidents of the University of Virginia. A community member spoke. A student reprised the hip-hop tribute he'd composed for a candlelight vigil.
David was a model and mentor for those of us who worked with him in the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. For him the word "public" was as important as all the others in the name. It meant deep commitments to accessibility and to accountability – the kind that involves talking, listening and working with people beyond the walls of the ivory tower, not just counting students, costs and completion times. Evidently he walked the talk in southwestern Virginia. He pushed all of us to do more for our students and communities. A public mission, he insisted, was not optional.
Days before the memorial service, I had read a Canadian newspaper columnist’s cheery warning of the digital "disruption" that awaits our expensive, "medieval" universities as students discover the next wave of self-directed online learning. A good thing, too, she wrote, since we don’t need and cannot afford "10,000 professors in 10,000 classrooms lecturing on the same subject."
There are, of course, plenty of things about modern universities that are worthy of serious, informed discussion. They include the relationship of research to teaching, the role of new instructional technologies and the relative priority of taxpayer investment in higher education.
But it is a dangerous starting point for such a discussion to treat universities narrowly as credential mills, serving students as individual learners for only as long as it takes them to complete a degree. It wouldn’t fly in Wise.
The lesson lived by people like David Prior is that, for their own good, and for the public good, universities need to be rooted someplace rather than no place. They need to be an active, everyday part of real communities whose histories and geographies, aspirations and troubles, inflect their curriculums and inspire their research. They need to be present, not aloof. They especially need leaders to make the case for doing so.
Of all the disruptions to come in higher education, that’s the one worth cheering. In many places, it’s already begun.
Roger Epp is professor of political science at the University of Alberta, and was founding dean of the university’s Augustana Campus. This winter he is a visiting research professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.