February 27, 2012

Higher Ed’s Identity Crisis

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Higher education is approaching something of an identity crisis. And three seemingly unrelated events, some national and some here in Ithaca, offer a glimpse of what the contours of the crisis might be. They also illustrate just how badly this country needs a discussion about the role of higher education in America.

The first event is the highly heralded Cornell-Technion partnership to build the NYCTech campus. Announced just a few months ago, the new tech partnership has garnered more excitement than anything else I’ve witnessed during my three years on the Hill. And for good reason: The chance to be an integral part of transforming New York City doesn’t come around every day.

But the decision to build a two billion dollar campus hundreds of miles away from Ithaca does more than just help Cornell in its effort to become the preeminent research university of the 21st century — it speaks volumes about what a preeminent university in the 21st century will look like. In Cornell’s conception, such a university isn’t merely an incubator for ideas; it’s a vehicle to transform society in a very real way.  And while that might not be a novel idea in and of itself, the way that Cornell plans to go about it is.

At one point, higher education sought to transform society by educating citizens with a sense of duty to their nation. In 1896, Woodrow Wilson, who would become president of Princeton University, gave a speech that would forever change the discourse on higher education. In “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” Wilson argued that the university has a responsibility to instill a sense of civic duty in its students. The university is to be neither simply a place of learning for self-gratification, nor a purely vocational institution. The “school must be of the nation,” promoting a sense of duty in its students lest they closet themselves off “while a nation comes to its maturity.”

The days when universities characterize their missions as particular to a specific nation are long gone. Indeed, Princeton amended its unofficial motto from “Princeton in the nation’s service” to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations.” Cornell is now often referred to as the “land grant university to the world.” Surely this is a function of the diverse and increasingly global student bodies at universities around the country, as well as the feeling that knowledge — the currency of the university — should know no national bounds. Increasingly, universities’ public service aims focus on producing “global citizens.”

The NYCTech campus, though, represents something of a new model of public service for the modern university. This conception of public service doesn’t necessarily seek to produce knowledgeable citizens with a fealty to the nation; it seeks to transform a local economy, create jobs and new technology and blaze new frontiers. It seeks to find ways to help New York and the United States, as well as the larger world community. And by doing so, it seeks to balance a particularistic mission — say, as the land grant university to the State of New York — with a universal aim, like being the “land grant university to the world.”

To be sure, the NYCTech campus represents just one model of public service for the university, and others surely exist. Tufts has a “College of Citizenship and Public Service” that seeks to educate “active citizens,” who aim to build “stronger, healthier and safer communities,” regardless of where those communities may be. The modern university, with an expanding global footprint, will undoubtedly have to reconsider what its public service mission entails and to whom its primary responsibility belongs.

The modern university will also deal with more pressing issues, foremost among them diversity in higher education. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last week to hear a case focused on race-based admissions, the state of diversity at universities across the country has the potential to undergo significant changes. Should the court find the use of race as a factor in admissions unconstitutional, Cornell and other universities will be affected in very real ways. Many believe that university demographics will change, with fewer African-American and Hispanic students likely matriculating.

In near prescient fashion, President Skorton released a statement on Cornell’s commitment to diversity just days before the Supreme Court announced it would hear Fisher v. The University of Texas. In it, he reaffirmed Cornell’s commitment to diversity and announced that he and the provosts will be “directing the development of explicit institutional diversity goals.”  If that sounds vague, it’s because it is. President Skorton has called for a revamped “University Diversity Council” to move these initiatives forward, but details about these “explicit institutional diversity goals” have not yet been forthcoming. But they need to be if any serious debate about diversity in higher education is going to take place.

What the NYCTech campus, Fisher v. The University of Texas, and President Skorton’s diversity initiative all have in common is this: They should all prompt a rethinking, or at the very least a rearticulation, of the modern university’s mission.  What does public service mean in the 21st century? To whom does the university’s primary responsibility belong? What is the place of race and diversity in the modern university? And what is the place of morality and civic duty? The answer to these questions will very likely define the course of higher education in America.

We need a “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” for the 21st century.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen

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