I was recently attending a conference where higher education leaders and officials from across the country gathered. In one of the sessions, a speaker addressed the challenges and critiques faced by colleges and universities today. These criticisms ranged from accusations of political indoctrination and concerns about affordability and value to questions about graduates' readiness for the workforce and persistent gaps in access and success.
The presenter emphasized the importance of better storytelling and cautioned against allowing others to define the narrative solely based on graduates' earning outcomes. He pointed out that the inability of higher education to effectively measure learning has unfortunately led to the reliance on graduates’ income as a proxy for success. However, he urged institutions to recognize their own flaws and imperfections, to embrace humility, and to actively work on improvement.
In order to gain broader public support, the speaker emphasized the need for institutions to marshal evidence of progress and showcase tangible results. He predicted that by doing this, colleges and universities can gradually change the tide of public perception. This process involves an honest assessment of shortcomings, a dedication to learning from past mistakes, and a clear plan for enhancing institutional effectiveness.
One notable recommendation from the speaker was to "stick to your knitting." This phrase encouraged institutional leaders to focus on their areas of expertise rather than attempting to go into areas where they may not have adequate knowledge or experience. The line of thinking was that by concentrating on familiar areas of activity; institutions can build on their strengths, bolster their infrastructure, and further excel in their core mission of providing quality education.
I thought about this guidance in the context of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday was just celebrated across the country. While King certainly prepared himself to excel in his chosen “knitting" of being a pastor by graduating from Morehouse College at 19 years old, Crozier Theological Seminary at 22, and completing his Ph.D. from Boston University at 26, and going on to secure the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, I'm glad that he didn't choose to just "stick to his knitting" when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955.
King's training and experience became invaluable as he was called upon to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association. Despite being relatively new in town and still establishing himself as a minister, his ability to effectively communicate, organize, and inspire others played a crucial role in mobilizing the community.
The people of Montgomery, including Alabama State College Professor Jo Ann Robinson and numerous students, didn't simply stick to their knitting either. They printed tens of thousands of leaflets informing the community of the plan to boycott the system. A boycott that lasted for 381 days. The community seized the moment and took bold action. Their courageous decision to walk with dignity rather than ride in shame demonstrated their commitment to equality and justice.
The impact of King and his fellow activists extended far beyond Montgomery. Students like John Lewis, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Diane Nash also stepped up, challenging segregation and fighting for civil rights. They didn't limit themselves to their academic pursuits at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, they are other college students joined the Freedom Riders in 1961, risking their lives to ensure equal access and enforcement of interstate travel rights.
The actions of these individuals illustrate the power of stretching beyond one's immediate knitting and venturing into uncharted territory. By doing so, they were able to bring about significant progress and change the trajectory of history. Their willingness to step up, speak out, and take action has left an indelible mark on society.
In today's context, higher education leaders can draw inspiration from King and the civil rights movement. They can choose to recognize that their expertise and mission extend beyond the confines of their campuses. Just as King used his training and knowledge to shape the course of history, colleges and universities have the opportunity to address pressing social issues, foster civic engagement, and contribute actively to positive change.
While it is important to stick to one's knitting and focus on core areas of expertise, institutions should also be open to exploring new directions, collaborating with diverse stakeholders, and embracing the challenges and opportunities presented by an ever-changing world. By doing so, they can not only improve public perception but also make a meaningful impact in society.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s example reminds us that sometimes the greatest achievements come from stepping outside our comfort zones and challenging the status quo. As higher education institutions face critiques and adapt to changing societal needs, they too must be willing to venture beyond their traditional roles and embrace opportunities for growth, collaboration, and positive change. By both sticking to their knitting and embracing new challenges, colleges and universities can foster true progress and make a lasting difference in the world.
Dr. Marcus Bright is an author and social impact professional.