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Who Are We, Where Are We Going, and Why?

Tasks for higher ed leaders.

May 13, 2014

Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, as well as a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written a very important and cogent piece on higher education recently for the Winter 2014 issue of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Carnegie Reporter.  An excerpt of it appears here.

To my mind, it is the single best assessment of higher education in contemporary literature.  When I was in (Catholic, all-girls) high school, we used to make fun of one of our religion teachers, a priest who began every class with the question: “Who are you, where are you going and why?”  Now I find myself saying that almost every day.  Since so much of my life is wrapped up in higher education, I find that the question equally applies, and has increased its meaning over time.

In a nutshell, it is the question that Lemann asks of higher education.  A journalist by trade, he has an outsider’s view that informs his keen eye about a world he entered at a high level later in life.  I think that his vision is well worth a reader’s time.

With reference to the greats thinkers before him, such as Newman, Flexner and Kerr, he assessed the first question of “who we are” by finding a Goldilocks middle ground of institutional autonomy for the exercise of missions as well as the recommendation that colleges and universities engage more with the rest of the world.  That engagement is not instrumental, such as supplying the work force with skilled employees, but meant to bridge the values and work product of higher education with the wants and needs of larger societies.

His discussion of “where we are” is the single best account of which I am aware explicating the tremendous expenses that higher education must bear.  I have only one little quibble about how he explains that landscape. He could be more clear about the conundrum if he were to distinguish costs -- what institutions incur -- from price -- what students (and their parents, and via government financial aid, taxpayers) pay.  That he makes the attempt to inform the public about this conundrum is the vital point, however. I wish he would have tackled a subset of this issue: how and why pricing is so weird in the sense that scholarships and financial aid often compensates for much of the price of private education in particular.  One’s first thought is “wait a minute, can’t institutions simply net it all out, avoid the shell game and set a clear price?”  Well, no, because the price must remain high for those students – increasingly foreign – who pay full freight, and whose payments support the tuition game.  Perhaps it is too minor of a point to decipher even though it sticks in my craw. 

The forest of Lehmann’s point is greater than a look at individual species of trees, although writers who are more inclined to detail might take unit areas, such the non-academic cost of supporting student services or units such as human resources, pensions and benefits, or information technology to understand better behind-the-scenes institutional expenses.  That said, let me now get down to articulating the points that Professor Lehmann makes. Higher education leaders must:

1. Educate faculty about the fundamental dynamics of academic administration including, if not especially, its finances;

2. Readjust faculty focus to some degree from disciplines to institutions to enhance the health of higher education generally;

3. Help the public, and elected officials, appreciate the costs of higher education in U.S. so that we all might support it more whole-heartedly instead of focusing on its "price" and nit-picking this program or that, and fundamental misunderstanding its value;

4. Borrow thoughtfully from observers of higher education in the modern age to reassess “who we are;” in order that we may see “where we are going;”

5. Plan on an appropriate path for going forward, combining mission autonomy with practical and appropriate engagement in the world.

In short, higher education leaders must strive to peel away the miasma of confusion around higher education to situate it more solidly in the 21st century.  I recommend that we begin that process by reading this document, discussing his ideas, even it means asking the corny questions of, “Who are we, where and we going, and why?”


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