The Public Service Obligation

A stint in public higher education left Paula M. Krebs wondering how private liberal arts colleges think about their obligations to their local communities.

August 22, 2011

A liberal arts college like mine necessarily has a different sense of its role in relation to its community than does a community college or a research university. I spent the past academic year as an ACE Fellow, learning about public higher education, and one of my biggest adjustments was coming to understanding public higher education’s role in economic development and workforce preparation. The institution to which I was attached, the five-campus University of Massachusetts system, understands its role in its state and region in terms inherited from the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges and their obligation to train state residents in new techniques of agriculture. The current manifestation of the Morrill Act would seem to be in the university’s commitment to commercial ventures, patents, and intellectual property, helping to start and support new businesses that grow out of research done on campus. In this region, much of the university’s innovation comes in biotechnology.

Community colleges and, to an extent, regional state colleges and universities focus more on workforce preparation. Community colleges are nimble — they can develop programs to meet particular employment needs of their regions quickly and efficiently. New communications tech company opens, and the area doesn’t have trained workers? The local community college starts a program in fiber optics installation (our neighbor Cape Cod Community College recently did this).

Private liberal arts colleges have no Morrill Act and no stated obligation to their regions to prepare workers. We have had the luxury of determining for ourselves the extent to which we connect to our local community and its needs, and colleges vary in their approaches. Some are deeply engaged with local needs, such as Dickinson College, which not only works with area organizations through service learning but also encourages faculty to teach research skills by working with community organizations on projects that would benefit from student research. Other liberal arts colleges are more isolated from the economic and social issues of their surrounding communities, with teaching and learning located strictly on campus.

My year in a state university system made me wonder whether there is an equivalent of tech transfer and business incubation for liberal arts colleges. Not, mind you, that we could do much tech transfer or business incubation – I don’t think we could or should. My question is, what would be the equivalent of those things – in effect on the community, in effect on the campus, and in tying one to the other?

Service learning is not the sole answer, as important as it is. It’s a different category: individual students doing internships at individual agencies. Nor is volunteering – the orientation day of service or the class project at the nursing home. What I’m looking for is the liberal arts college equivalent of the research university concept of innovation: a campus structure that would encourage our students and faculty to challenge themselves to develop new ideas that have implications for the world, and the local communities around them.

To a certain extent, of course, the sciences already do this at liberal arts colleges. Active labs are constantly moving research forward, even if it isn’t funded by industry with an eye toward a future bottom line. The arts, too, are always looking off campus, to a larger audience for music, studio art, dance, drama, and creative writing. But to move beyond seeking audiences and into active involvement in the community, college artists, as well as the rest of us, need active support and encouragement from the institution. What kinds of structures at a liberal arts college would support a model of innovation that would link the campus and its community in ways that would benefit both?

The social contract between the nation and higher education, ideally, means that both parties recognize our mutual obligations. Different sectors of higher education recognize those obligations differently. The central role of workforce preparation for community colleges is clear, and those colleges are repaid with state appropriations and federal funding for student aid (inadequately, I know). That would seem to be the contract in action.

For the research university, state investment seems to pay off handsomely in economic development dollars generated in the state. The state research universities I’ve seen seem to take very seriously their obligations to their states – it’s not as clear to me that the other side of the social contract is being upheld, however, as funding for postsecondary education is seen as discretionary and takes huge cuts all over the country.

So where is the mutual obligation between the private liberal arts college and its community? We at such colleges have largely understood our obligation to be one of preparing educated critical thinkers, ready for graduate study or a career. That obligation works at the individual level, however, student by student. What if we envisioned ourselves as having a campus obligation, a contract with our community in return for the federal student aid our students already receive and for a new level of support from business and civic communities?

Many private colleges that draw their students from all over the country, as well as from other countries, do not see themselves as part of their regions in the way public universities do. “Region” is a less significant concept than it used to be, in an era when strong communities are formed through social networks and work can be done from remote locations. Even so, colleges are in regions, as any college town finance committee will tell you. Colleges’ nonprofit status exempts them from paying property tax, with the understanding that, as with nonprofit hospitals and government buildings, the work that goes on in those tax-exempt properties is work that benefits the community.

Liberal arts colleges should better recognize the obligation of our sector of higher education to the economy and to civic life in general. We may not produce particular kinds of workers for a particular geographical region or produce technology that can be brought to market. And even if we shift our conceptual framework to what Wesleyan President Michael Roth advocates, to seeing a college education as a “platform,” a “capacity builder,” rather than a “product,” we still end up focusing on the individual student.

Instead, let’s reconceive the liberal arts college as an essential and functioning part of a large, working democracy. Our colleges can connect better with other institutions, organizations, companies, and community groups, working to help to solve off-campus problems as well as helping students to understand themselves as members of multiple communities. Organizations such as Campus Compact, which focuses on community service, and Imagining America, which focuses especially on campus work in public arts and humanities, promote these kinds of outreach, but each campus needs to take responsibility for its own place in the social contract.

To make such a shift, we would need first need to find out, from various campus constituencies, what is already going on on campus: Where are we sending our students and why (for internships, for jobs, for study abroad)? Where is our research used? With what community organizations are faculty and staff involved? Once we can identify our constituencies, we could formulate a structured approach to them, one that would enable our campuses to establish firm relationships off campus that would then become part of the campus identity.

Once we see what we’re already doing, we can identify whether it’s what we want to be doing: With what local and national organizations do we feel especially aligned? How much are we working with them? Where would we like our students to intern or to work, and what can we do to get them there? What groups, individuals, intellectual and working communities could be benefiting from the research we are doing on our campuses?

Becoming aware of and then cultivating ties with various off-campus entities can strengthen a liberal arts college as well as strengthening the job prospects for our students. We are not in the business of workforce preparation as community colleges are, nor are we likely to make a big splash with new patents or business incubation as the research universities do. But we need to be in the business of defining our relevance beyond our own walls as we prepare students for life beyond our campuses. Through financial aid and tax exemption, our national, state, and local communities help to make it possible for private colleges to exist. The more we take seriously our obligations beyond our walls, the more clear it will be to skeptics how much higher education, including private higher education, brings to the social contract between the nation and its educational institutions. And the more our students see our campuses as closely engaged with civic life, the better citizens we will produce.


Paula M. Krebs is special assistant to the president for external relations and professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.


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