"Tuesday's gone with the wind." -- Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tuesday's Gone
"I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." -- John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII
Society has entered a new era of activism. It seems as if almost daily a new group of people are banding together to use their voices, bodies, and minds in support of those who have been mistreated and marginalized by unjust systems. As a result of social media, we know that this attitude of protest is not limited to the shores of North America. People around the world now have front row seats to both an #ArabSpring and a #BlackLivesMatter year. Whether the issue is economic inequality or police brutality, those who had once been thought of as powerless are discovering just how much influence their words, actions, and images possess.
There was a time when American higher education and its leadership would have played an integral role in these important societal events. In the not too distant past, U.S. colleges and universities were viewed as agents of change or at worst, allies to the agents of change. Our campuses spoke to the pain and dreams of society through our classrooms, students, and most importantly, actions. While our moral compasses were not always perfect, higher education was at least credited with being right more often than it was wrong.
Sadly, that time has passed. Today, in the eyes of far too many people, America's colleges and universities are viewed as major contributors to society's problems. More than the academe would care to admit, the dialogue surrounding higher education is about an exploitive industry that through the rampant use of student loans, administrative waste, and inflexible practices has done great damage to the future of our nation. While many of us know that such a view is untrue, or at a minimum is excessive, we cannot deny that higher education no longer enjoys the unadulterated trust of the masses.
The path back to trust and leadership, while long, is navigable. It starts by colleges doing more than primarily serving the needs of the people who provide research funding. Instead, higher education widen its gaze and acknowledge that it has a moral obligation to address the issues that matter to those outside and inside the ivory towers of the academe.
Nowhere is this moral obligation more apparent than in America's inner cities. Many urban colleges and universities are located in communities that lack access to grocery stores, banks, and high-performing school systems. Given the resources at their disposal and the urgency of the issues involved, how can any educational institution justify ignoring the cries of people whose daily lives consist of convenience stores, payday lending outlets, and mediocre educational experiences?
Not all schools have turned a deaf ear to these cries. There are some great examples of universities that are fulfilling their moral obligation to society. These schools are unafraid to use their assets to effect needed change in their communities. One example of this model is the University of Pennsylvania. Penn, through its Buy West Philadelphia program, Penn Alexander School, and the Preferential Contracting program has transformed their area of Philadelphia. Wagner College in Staten Island has addressed the needs of its neighborhood by forming partnerships to improve college readiness and small business development. My own institution, Paul Quinn College, attacked the food desert surrounding the campus by transforming the varsity football field into an organic farm.
We are currently living in a moment of great historical significance. History tends to judge harshly those individuals and entities that fail to answer the bells of their eras when they toll. The history-makers and leaders of this moment will be discussed, debated, lauded, and written about. Unless higher education regains its voice, its role during this period will be remembered as #ShouldHaveDoneMore.