You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Not a day goes by that I don’t read something that shocks me, annoys me, frustrates me, rouses me or inspires me. I may read fewer novels than when I was younger, but I read much more nonfiction: a seemingly unending torrent of books and articles, editorials, essays, social commentary, blog postings, tweets, and other long and short-form texts.

These writings remind me of the quotation attributed to Horace Walpole, Jean Racine, Molière, Jean de La Bruyère: “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Or I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Consider the following examples:

  • Wealthy colleges have found a new way to separate potential students from their dollars—$60,000-a-year programs for seniors that will let you call yourself a Harvard or Notre Dame fellow and help older workers plot encore careers and reflect on their work lives and find a sense of purpose.
  • In response to reports that Roald Dahl’s books are being rewritten to cut potentially offensive language and delete references to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race, Joyce Carol Oates suggests that sensitivity readers might re-write Lord of the Flies as “a delightful adventure tale of plucky shipwrecked boys camping out in a challenging environment until a rescue ship comes to their island & returns them to their mommies.”

Or more seriously:

  • The Great Awokening may be waning, but its imprint on scholarship, public discourse and institutional function is far from over; its impact can be seen in the contention at The New York Times as some staff accused the newspaper of bias in its coverage of transgender and gender-nonconforming issues and attacked some of their colleagues by name, prompting a rebuke from management.
  • In a bid to increase equity, a growing number of school districts are eliminating advanced and accelerated high school classes and valedictorian distinction.
  • Dozens of Illinois schools report having no students meet the state’s proficiency standards in either math or reading, and seven of these schools were deemed “commendable” by the state Board of Education. Those schools only constitute a little over 1 percent of those in Illinois, but in 18 percent of the state’s schools, only one child in 10 can read at grade level and in 25 percent of the schools, only one in 10 is proficient in math.

But of all the articles I recently read, two stand out and both share a common theme: the power of purpose. The two pieces, one by David French, the political commentator and New York Times opinion columnist, and another by Brookings Institution fellows Emily Markovich Morris and Ghulam Omar Qargha, argue that without a well-defined sense of purpose, individuals and institutions inevitably lose their way.

French’s essay, “Men Need Purpose More Than ‘Respect,’” attributes the current crisis of masculinity, evident in many deaths of despair and acts of violence and abuse, to many men’s loss of a sense of purpose. French reminds his readers that admiration or validation is ephemeral and evanescent and that respect must come from within, grounded in a sense of that one is fulfilling one’s role and making a meaningful, positive mark on one’s world.

The Morris and Omar Qargha essay, “In the quest to transform education, putting purpose at the center is key,” argues that educational institutions that fail to anchor themselves in a mission—whether that is promoting economic development, research and scholarship, civic engagement, or personal development—can’t generate the kinds of support and buy-in that institutional success requires.

One might think that a call for men to dedicate their lives to something greater than themselves would be regarded as a rather prosaic platitude. But it is striking how many of French’s readers’ comments slammed his argument. As one reader put it, “Why do you need purpose? Why not just enjoy life?”

Many of the criticisms argued that French had adopted a rather narrow, stereotypical male conception of purpose, equating it with work rather than relationships or caregiving or serving others. Still, most comments acknowledge that meaning and purpose are essential attributes of a good life, even if many slighted the essay for failing to specify (apart from military service) what that purpose or calling might be or how the larger society or culture can help men achieve that goal.

As for the idea that educational institutions require a distinct mission with well-defined implications policy and practice, what we see are campuses—with the exception of military academies or religious campuses or small liberal arts colleges—with multiple, complex, often conflicting and competing functions and responsibilities.

In a 2020 book entitled The Purpose-Driven University, Debbie Haski-Leventhal, a professor of management at Macquarie University and a scholar of corporate social responsibility, argues that the universities need to become more mission-, vision- and values-focused and to place a greater emphasis to their social impact.

Her book’s title is, of course, drawn from a 2002 bestseller, Pastor Rick Warren’s blueprint for a Christian living in the 21st century, a sort of “12 step”–like, 40-day program to introduce readers to Christian doctrine and faith. Warren argued that a purpose-driven life will reduce a person’s stress level, simplify their decision-making and give their life more meaning and direction. Somewhat similarly, Haski-Leventhal maintains that a purpose-driven university will be better able to define its core values; strengthen its identity, curriculum and educational experience; and improve the ways it measures and markets its impact.

Put the words “universities are” into Google, Haski-Leventhal observes, and the search engine’s AI-powered autocomplete feature types in “dying,” “scams” and “irrelevant in the digital age.” She argues that major research universities need to combat their elitist, exclusionary and ivory tower reputation. Their research should be evaluated not simply in terms of quantitative “impact factors,” but by its success in tackling global economic, health and sustainability challenges. Its education should be measured by its success in producing transformational, consequential leaders.

The examples of purpose-driven universities that the author examines in her book struck me as somewhat odd and idiosyncratic. Neither Stanford nor Oxford, Erasmus, Simon Fraser, Auckland, KU Leuven, UPenn, or the University of Technology Sydney are institutions that I associate with a special purpose. These are expansive research multiversities, not the kind of smaller campuses that we typically associate with an explicit mission: HBCUs like Morehouse and Spelman, work colleges like Berea or Paul Quinn, Hispanic-serving institutions like the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley or Texas A&M San Antonio or religious institutions like Notre Dame or Yeshiva University. Nor are they, like the City University of New York’s two- and four-year colleges, dedicated to broad access and upward mobility.

Still, Haski-Leventhal insists that these universities are purposeful in their research and teaching and serve as agents for innovation—though I am not as convinced as the author that these institutions do an especially effective job of helping their graduates define a meaningful identity or direction in life, develop a sense of higher purpose or serve as unambiguous forces for societal good.

But I do share Haski-Leventhal’s belief that all campuses, even R-1s, should think much more seriously about their mission and purpose and the graduates that they produce and rethink their curriculum and research priorities to be more impactful

My campus has a great tagline: “What starts here changes the world.” To a certain extent, it’s true. Among the innovations that the campus touts are the lithium-ion battery, 3-D printing, less painful glucose monitoring, a less addictive form of Oxycontin and next-generation gene sequencing. To that list, I’d certainly add UTeach, a program to prepare teachers in STEM fields; a scaled freshman research program that brings hundreds of underserved undergraduates into cutting-edge fields; and the Dana Center’s efforts to design math pathways to enable all students to achieve postsecondary success in math, statistics and data science.

There are certainly pockets of innovation and many admirable outreach initiatives at my university. But I certainly wouldn’t claim that my school is purpose-driven or any more values- and vision-aligned than any other campus.

This raises several questions: Would this country be better served if our secular, public institutions were more purpose-driven? If so, what would that purpose be?

Here, the criticisms leveled against industrial policy come to mind: that “picking winners” is a crapshoot, that unfettered basic research tends to produce more breakthroughs than targeted research, and that planning is too often captured and distorted by various political or economic interests. Somewhat similarly, it seems self-evident that campuses, too, are better served by allowing faculty to set their own teaching and research priorities than to have a Board of Trustees or a frequently shifting senior administration set the institution’s direction.

That said, are there ways that that campuses like mine could be more purposeful? I think the answer is “yes.” Here’s how:

  1. Offer more programs that cultivate critical consciousness. In their essay, Morris and Omar Qargha refer to Paolo Freire’s argument about the importance of nurturing awareness of the sources of various kinds of inequality, whether rooted in economics, gender, class, colonialism, ideology, public policy or something else. Whether or not you agree with Freire’s politics, I think we should want our students to wrestle with the underlying causes of various disparities and inequities in today’s world and various proposed solutions.
  2. Provide more space for ethical deliberation. Our campuses, I am convinced, need to do more to foster values clarification, moral deliberation and ethical reasoning. We shouldn’t seek to dictate outcomes. Instead, our goal ought to be more modest: to facilitate discussion, debate, dialogue and analysis.
  3. Adopt a cross-disciplinary cluster approach to key problems of our time. I can’t think of a major societal problem that wouldn’t benefit from multidisciplinary analysis. Input from the humanities is essential. After all, pressing issues require contextualization, background information, ethical consideration and cultural analysis. Why not institutionalize more collaborations and campus conversations that cut across disciplines?
  4. Become more community-oriented, more strategic and more performance- and outcomes-focused. At my campus and perhaps yours, the primary measures of academic success are graduation rates and time to degree. There are few measures of community engagement, equity in access to high-demand majors, postemployment outcomes or even student satisfaction. We need to be far more cognizant of the impact of the education that we offer.

Purpose at a secular multiversity isn’t and shouldn’t be the same as at smaller, more narrowly focused institutions. But that doesn’t mean that a secular university should, like Darwin’s conception of nature, be purposeless and directionless. Rather, such an institution should take up the challenge of articulating a vision and set of values, not the generic mush that passes for mission statements, but a set of genuine commitments.

Several commitments strike me as appropriate:

  • A commitment to attracting a truly diverse student body and bringing all of these students to academic and postgraduation success.
  • A commitment to community service, civic dialogue and educational outreach.
  • A commitment to addressing pressing social problems.

As I look back at the pandemic’s worst days, I am struck by the failure of most colleges and universities to truly step up to the plate. Did my department or campus work with K-12 schools to create high-quality teaching resources that might have enhanced remote learning? No. Did we create community programming that might have met the public’s need for enlightenment and entertainment that went beyond that found on television and the streaming services? Nope. Did we make our expertise widely available to address the problems that the pandemic unleashed or intensified? Not really.

I have had the opportunity to see purpose-driven universities firsthand. For example, nearby Texas A&M San Antonio truly embraces its identity as a Hispanic-serving institution. Its first-year for-credit JagX transition-to-college program introduces new students to classmates, faculty and staff, college expectations, and campus traditions and pairs freshmen with peer mentors. First-year seminars emphasize academic skills development, and more advanced classes help undergraduates stress professional identity formation. There are also student success coaches to proactively reach out to struggling students, scaled research opportunities to encourage participation in STEM fields, and field and service-learning experiences that underscore the campus’ commitment to community engagement. In addition, “Family First” seminars help parents and other family members better understand the university experience and campus life, while block scheduling and Saturday classes  make it easier for students to balance their studies with jobs and family responsibilities.

A much bigger university like mine can’t duplicate the sense of mission that one finds at Texas A&M San Antonio. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be more purposeful, intentional and strategic. A campus’s curriculum, programs and initiatives ought to give practical expression to the institution’s values and vision.

A recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review entitled “Unlock the Power of Purpose” asserts that institutions that have “defined a values-based core purpose for their existence and pursue strategies aligned with that raison d’être can gain many advantages.” These include greater strategic focus, more engaged and motivated employees and stakeholders and a better ability to assess their impact and actions.

If this purpose-driven approach helps profit-making corporations enhance their performance, it should work even better at universities that claim to be guided by higher values and a profound sense of mission.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma