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Colleges, universities should show less caution, more courage and challenges

Creative Commons/Patricia DruryHarvard Prof. Harry Lewis: “One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the [United States] is that it is lacking in universities.”

The fall semester is an exciting time to be a college professor. The spring semester has its charms with the promise of summer and the thrill of graduation, but for me, the start of the school year is what keeps me coming back for more. My scholarly work over the summer months pays off immediately in the changes that appear on my syllabi. My batteries are recharged by a blessed absence from office politics and paperwork. And the best part is I get to encounter a new class of college students. This year many of these newcomers will be from the high-school class of 2013.

The class of 2013 is an important group of young people. Many of them would have started their academic journey in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency and entered first grade under No Child Left Behind. They also began the first grade around the time of the Sept. 11th attacks. For this class of young people, their academic minds have been shaped by a steady diet of high-stakes standardized tests, and their civic consciousness has been molded by a nation continuously at war.

What kind of colleges and universities will these students enter? While reading the current issue of Harper’s Magazine I discovered Harry Lewis, a distinguished professor of computer science at Harvard and the former dean of Harvard College. To give you a sense of Lewis’ thinking on the current state of higher education, I share this with you:

“One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the [United States] is that it is lacking in universities. As institutions, they now operate much more like ordinary corporations, fearful of bad publicity, eager to stay on good terms with the government, and focused on their bottom lines, than as boiling cauldrons of unconventional ideas sorted out through a process of disputation, debate, and occasional dramatic gestures.”

More cautious, increasingly conservative

I teach at Southwest Minnesota State University, not at Harvard. And at SMSU, disputation and debate are common, though the dramatic gesture has retreated largely to the theater building! But Lewis was thinking institutionally and not about individual classes or particular events on campus. And I think he is right. I have been around colleges and universities since 1977, and in that time the institutions have become cautious.

kolnick portrait
Jeff Kolnick

What has changed, I think, is that the austerity agenda has starved them of money. As the conservative hostility to all things “public” (including idea of a public good) has settled in as the new normal, universities have entered into a life-and-death competition for students (customers?) that has caused them to wither from the top.

Education is now seen as a personal investment, not a public good. Scarce dollars cause colleges to chase money from billionaire philanthropists who push free-market solutions to every conceivable problem. University leaders feel the need to appeal to increasingly conservative state legislators who despise government.

University governing boards, chancellors, presidents, provosts, deans and chairs (and, sadly, even most faculty) are afraid to challenge the conservative orthodoxy because they desperately want to save what is left of higher education. Colleges and universities, as institutions, used to challenge authority with facts and reason. This is less common today and stems, I believe, from the austerity agenda of the super rich.

Mentor ‘shocked one into thinking’

Eleanor Roosevelt once said of her mentor and favorite teacher, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre, that she “shocked one into thinking, and that on the whole was very beneficial.” It is this chance to shock students into thinking, into realizing the power of their own minds and ideas, that causes me to return each fall semester.

If ever there was a class of students that needed to be shocked into thinking, it is the class of 2013. After 12 years of No Child Left Behind, too many of them have been numbed into believing that filling in bubbles can measure intelligence. Never having known a conscious moment of peace, some of them might think that war is normal.

What they need from a college is a boiling cauldron of unconventional ideas that are tested through rigorous debate and civil discourse. I fear that they will find instead institutions that prepare them only for work and not to think or, when necessary, to challenge stale orthodoxy.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/21/2013 - 08:24 am.

    An outstanding piece, Prof Kolnick

    We are fortunate to have you at one of our state universities.


    Bill Gleason – colleague at the U of M

  2. Submitted by David Riggs on 08/21/2013 - 09:27 am.

    MNSCU as unfortunate example

    Professor Kolnick is correct on his larger point. However, I believe faculty have been reluctant to take on these issues because of their own internal turf battles and the ability of administrators to divide and marginalize the faculty and less so because of a desire to “save what is left of higher education.”

    David Riggs

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 08/21/2013 - 11:00 am.

    Excellent article

    Chasing grant money to survive is a low blow to education.

  4. Submitted by Kevin Doyle on 08/21/2013 - 11:57 am.


    (This article was linked on the internet. I am writing from Colorado.)

    I agree with Professor Kolnick 100%.

    I resigned my full professor position at my university in Utah due to all of the things Prof. Kolnick mentions and more. The Utah legislature (like too many other states) was and is determined to cut funding to their state universities to less than the bare minimum, forcing its universities to find other sources of funding. Tuitions, of course, have skyrocketed but whatever money the university has attracted comes with strings attached that determine hires and content of classes and degrees. The students are the LAST to be considered. The quality of education is terrible at the undergraduate level. There are classes that have over 500 students to save money. Online courses are cheap and easy. Students graduate who basically should start all over.

    One of the hardest things to watch was the quality of instruction plummet and the remaining profs simply hide in their offices and not say a word. The faculty senate was a joke and certainly seen as such by administration. None of the professors sent their children to their own university. They knew better. Such is the state of public higher education today.

  5. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 08/21/2013 - 12:01 pm.

    You underestimate students

    Really…..? “If ever there was a class of students that needed to be shocked into thinking, it is the class of 2013.”

    This generation lives in a more connected, open and global society than any other before. My experience also tells me this generation is just as ambitious with their plans for the future as any other.

    Perhaps its normal that as we grow older we just think the next generation can’t hold a candle to how we used to be. Our concerns would be more productive if we looked at how the world is changing, and making sure our higher education system is keeping pace.

  6. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/24/2013 - 01:42 pm.

    Today’s youth are great

    As a person in his ’60’s who deals daily with high school students, I think today’s youngsters are great. I can’t speak for those who attend SW state – but I deal with urban and suburban youngsters constantly. They are creative, active, thoughtful.

    Having spent more than 22 years on two different college campuses, I also encountered many very thoughtful, creative, open minded college students.

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