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What Shall We Do? Higher Education's Existential Crisis

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We live in a society infatuated with rankings, evaluations, head-head competitions, and the like. We also live in a fast-changing world, dominated by the tsunami of technology innovation, changing demography, community reinvention, shifting borders, growing disparities, polarization, and unnerving uncertainty. And when it comes to organizations, from universities to governmental entities to corporations, this can be a recipe for an existential identity crisis -- who are we, what are we trying to do, and how do we measure up?

Pardon me if, as a psychologist, I say that an existential identity crisis every so often isn't such a bad thing for growth and creativity. After all, as individuals we define ourselves via others -- the "looking glass self" -- and social comparison is natural, so why shouldn't organizations do it too? I believe universities ought to consider what we look like to the "public" (not that there is one public), taking an "outside-in" perspective on what our constituents need from us, before we turn to what we think we're best suited to do.

From the perspective of the media, higher education is almost a necessary evil -- evil in terms of run-away costs, low productivity, outmoded teaching methods, the perpetuation of privilege, but also necessary for private gains in a knowledge economy and as the engine of public prosperity in an innovation-lead global marketplace.

Yet, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which created our land-grant universities, we also recall that this happened in the midst of one of the most divisive chapters in our history. President Abraham Lincoln and Vermont Senator Justin Morrill prophesied that "democracy's colleges" would drive post-civil war America's prosperity, barn-raising with their communities to create innovation and spread educational opportunity. This decidedly optimistic reflection of higher education's promise is still alive today, and many people are beginning to remind us that in the contemporary context of divisive politics and contested and unequal prosperity, higher education needs to step to the plate, barn-raising once again.

To put it simply, from one looking-glass reflection we look like a run-away train and from another we look like a magic bullet for what ails society -- and of course some mix of both reflections is likely most helpful as we consider our existential purpose.

So, what shall we do? Focus on fixing the run-away train or orient our attention toward serving the public good? No doubt both approaches are needed, yet it really matters, just like it does for individuals, which mindset predominates. If we want first and foremost to fix the run-away train, then what we should do is figure out a very clear recipe for what each institution in our diverse landscape of higher education is best suited to do (cheaply) and which students are ready made to be educated there. By this recipe, community colleges will be primarily vocational and educate our fastest growing pool of predominantly low income students from under-resourced public schools. Highly selective four-year privates and publics will increasingly reject ever more applicants while superbly "educating" those who are already most prepared, not coincidentally consolidating a hold on U.S. News rankings. From a pure productivity perspective, this clarification of purpose in higher education might be highly effective, even if it would perpetuate a legacy of separate and unequal education, as a Century Foundation task force has recently pointed out.

Another major problem with this productivity framework is that we may be throwing out the baby with the bath water, if we fail to both invest in community colleges as a fulsome launch pad for America's future talent pool and simultaneously fail to push the habits of highly selective institutions to embrace education as an act of cultivation. By contrast, we could instead take what psychologist Carol Dweck would call a "growth mindset" on success, in which rather than just document what different groups of students and universities already have (or haven't) accomplished, we focus on what they could develop. We could follow Bill Gates' advice to "take people with low SATs and turn them into good lawyers," instead of doing what he characterizes as taking people with high SATs and hoping they are still smart when they leave. We could work to create the society that Nick Clegg, Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, urges, where "what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born." For higher education to give up on social mobility just at a time when our country's demographics are at a clear tipping point seems not only unwise, but wholly unfair.

As more and more colleges and universities look to move beyond our "ivory towers" to become vital anchor institutions in communities across our country, then a very different mindset must lead the way, with a different perspective on productivity. Here we would define productivity by asking: how well is the institution engaging with and cultivating a broader range of intellectual, social, and human capital capacity to train the next diverse generation? Is it succeeding over time in creating new talent pools, forming new programs, or establishing effective high-impact community-based collaborations? Do we know how to identify students who can thrive beyond those who already had every opportunity to do so? Can we be good partners in communities, collaborating to turn our schools, economy, and environment, around? What are we doing to support the students and faculty who do this engaged work?

These questions reveal a somewhat different national agenda than one in which pure short-term productivity predominates, an agenda responsive to the disparities in our midst, the divided communities in which we often live, and the prevalent need for civic leadership of all kinds and expertise from all directions. This agenda is about growing talent and engaged expertise, often in new places and with new partners, to everyone's benefit. In the long run, this might even bring us closer to an American competitiveness agenda, as innovation often follows some "disruption" in established hierarchies and allocation of responsibility.

Hence, when I think about our purpose today, I go back to Abraham Lincoln and Senator Justin Morrill, and I ask: Can we view education as cultivation? Can we plant new seeds of innovation that we collectively nurture both on our campuses and, just as importantly, in the communities with which we share a common fate? I firmly believe that we can find ways to do this efficiently and cost effectively if we barn-raise together, especially as our individualism isn't particularly sustainable. At the very least, we need to start talking to each other. That's what the American Commonwealth Partnership and Kettering Foundation, in partnership with the National Issues Forums are fostering through the Shaping Our Future national dialogue series kicked off this week at the National Press Club.

The stakes couldn't be higher. If we don't change the fate of our metropolitan communities, and instead continue to waste a larger and larger share of our nation's talent pool, we can't succeed by any measure of productivity. Who knows, there may even come a day when college rankings emphasize the value-added role for higher education that two wise men saw a century and a half ago. There is always hope, and that is why an existential identity crisis isn't a bad thing, every 150 years or so.