The American University: Private Benefit or Public Good?

The American University: Private Benefit or Public Good?

Phoenix
Harvard University’s Dr. Cornel West, the scheduled keynoter, wasn’t able to make it, but the nearly 1,000 faculty and administrators who gathered for the American Association of Higher Education’s 10th annual Forum on Faculty Roles and Rewards received a rousing call to arms nonetheless.
These are perilous times for higher education, according to the pinch-hitting keynoter, Dr. Edward Zlotkowski, a professor of English at Bentley College, founder of the Bentley Service-Learning Center, senior associate for service-learning with the American Association for Higher Education, and senior fellow with Campus Compact.
Zlotkowski got a rousing response when he spelled out the danger: “I am worried right now that the university is viewed as a private benefit, not a public good. And unless we can recast it as a publicly engaged venture, I think our very future is at stake.”
The professor’s catalog of the ills of the modern university was encyclopedic.
An embrace of a market-driven sense of competition has turned the academy into a “global jungle whose primordial law is survival of the fittest,” Zlotkowski says.
As a result, underprepared students have been driven out of elite institutions — and well-nigh out of higher education itself. Meanwhile, “diversity” has become a cloak for tokenism of the worst kind and, perhaps most frighteningly, the march of new pedagogies and new research methods — based on science, not the “habits, hearsay and traditions” of the past — has been stopped in its tracks “because elite institutions simply do not need them (to win) within the competitive market for students,” Zlotkowski says.
Matters are nearing the point of crisis, as the varied responses to the events of Sept. 11 revealed. While many of the nation’s faculty responded “heroically” to the crisis, as AAHE President Dr. Yolanda Moses says, still others barely mentioned the tragedy in class because, Zlotkowski says, “they simply did not know how to respond professionally to the tragedy. They knew how to respond personally and they did wonderfully respond.”
But, in Zlotkowski’s eyes, the events of Sept. 11 served to highlight the marked failure of campuses across the nation to embrace what the faculty at the University of Utah called in a 1995 document “socially responsive knowledge.”
Zlotkowski explained by noting that the academy’s major commitments over the past century have been to the development and dissemination of two kinds of knowledge: foundational knowledge and professional knowledge. But according to the faculty at the University of Utah, those forms of knowledge are inadequate to the challenges of the 21st century.
Indeed, Zlotkowski notes, “Large-scale problems of the physical environment, health, homelessness, and underemployment have taken the forefront of our attention as never before. Changes in the demography of the nation, attendant issues of cultural and ethnic diversity, changes in family structures and lifestyles, globalization of the economy and political systems are forcing us as academicians — not simply as private citizens, and not simply as concerned people who happen to teach, but professionally, as academicians — to no longer assume that we can perform our role without paying close attention to the impact of that role on the communities that surround us.
“These questions cannot be addressed only by instilling traditional and professional knowledge in our students,” Zlotkowski says. Students also need socially responsive knowledge.
And yet despite the dangers Zlotkowski outlined, he sees reasons for hope. “I am encouraged at the way so many students seem to have retained their humanity despite graduate school,” he says, only half-joking, and drawing laughter and scattered applause from his intent audience.
“I believe there are arising in our very midst a critical mass of faculty from a vast variety of different reform movements”— service-learning, participatory action research and community-based research, women’s studies, ethnic studies programs and many others — “which when united will constitute a new majority,” Zlotkowski says.
Zlotkowski says a careful inventory of the “new faculty”— White women and women and men of color — their teaching styles and their goals would show that “we are already close to the tipping point in having faculty who would embrace a more humanistic, true community of scholars.”
At the same time, Zlotkowski says he sees, “for the first time in my professional life” comprehensive universities, faith-based institutions, historically Black schools, small liberal arts institutions and community colleges “finding the courage to say that they do not need to seek the approval of elite institutions in order to pursue their distinctive missions.” 
— By Kendra Hamilton



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