Introduction to exploring critical issues in American higher education

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 28 September 2010



Scott, R.A. (2010), "Introduction to exploring critical issues in American higher education", On the Horizon, Vol. 18 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Introduction to exploring critical issues in American higher education

Article Type: Guest editorial From: On the Horizon, Volume 18, Issue 4

The American and, indeed, the global economy has experienced a series of phases over the past 100-plus years. These economic and employment phases range from agrarian practices and extraction technology; to scientific agriculture, engineering and manufacturing; to a service economy; to an information economy; and now, to what many are now calling an “innovation” or “idea” economy. In each phase, there have been great dislocations for those employed and great opportunities for those who re-trained, sought advanced education, and developed the ability to solve new problems. This evolution in employment and the economy will continue, and the demand for advanced education will increase, which places great responsibilities on universities – as well as great opportunities for investors.

Throughout these cycles, whether in white collar office jobs, healthcare, or manufacturing, human capital has become more important and the advantages of a university education more important.

Universities as unique institutions

Now more than 1,200 years old, universities are distinctive organizations that serve three roles – as creator, curator, and critic. Think of it: the university creates new knowledge through fundamental research into what is not known, new applications of what is discovered, and new interpretations of human activity through poetry and prose, body movement, music, and visual expression.

At the same time, the university is the curator of human activity, of our heritage as cultural beings, and the repository through archives as well as databases of past accomplishments, whether for good and evil. This is why history is so important as a field of study. In fact, I think the study of history and the nourishment of imagination are two essential elements in preparing citizens.

The university is also a “critic” – a forum for debate about the “status quo”. In this way, the university is at the margins of society, just as in its roles as creator and curator it is at the center. As critic, it raises ethical questions – questions of fairness and justice.

I believe this, but know as you do that there are topics in our society whose discussion is shunned, and whose mention yields catcalls of “appeaser”, “racist”, “Jihadist”, “Anti-Semite”, “traitor”. But if we cannot discuss controversial topics on a university campus, where can we? This is the role of the campus as critic, as the forum for difficult questions.

However, when the university fulfills its role as critic, it must be ready to be held to the same standards. Unfortunately, they do not always stand up well.

When I use the terms college, university, or institution of higher education, I use the term generically to include those which are government-funded and governed, those which are not-for-profit independent institutions with self-perpetuating board of trustees, and those which are for-profit, proprietary companies, which are publicly traded or privately held.

Universities as economic engines

Universities are economic engines. Imagine a community Chamber of Commerce that decided to start a strategic planning process for economic development, and included the following principles and priorities. First, they want to recruit an enterprise that would produce a product or service of which everyone could be proud. Second, they want an enterprise whose employees are highly educated and willing to be active in community organizations. Third, they want an enterprise that is respectful of the environment and supportive of green initiatives. Fourth, they want an enterprise willing to partner with schools, the civic community, and businesses. Fifth, they want an enterprise that would have a significant and positive impact on the local economy through operating and capital expenditures, as well as taxes paid.

Well, in Garden City, New York, that enterprise is Adelphi University, whose annual budget of nearly $200 million easily translates into an impact of almost one-half billion dollars, without counting the consequences of over $120 million in capital expenditures in recent years. These capital projects employed geothermal heating and cooling to reduce energy consumption and to lessen maintenance costs. Numerous other measures helped the University earn “L.E.E.D.” Certification on facilities opened two years ago.

The University collects FICA, federal, and state income taxes, and other taxes of over $20 million annually. When one adds in the restaurant, hotel, and other expenditures of those who visit campus during the year for Homecoming, Reunion, cultural programs, graduation, and sports events, the economic impact grows even larger. Adelphi employs some 2,000 people and is home to eight “hotels”, two “restaurants”, a municipal “police” force, and a transportation system of nearly 85 vehicles of various sizes. We transported over 250,000 riders last year between the campus and mass transit services. In addition, we receive over $50 million a year in federal and state financial aid and research grants. Furthermore, our students come from across the nation and over 60 other countries.

And Adelphi is but one of 19 colleges and universities on Long Island, in two counties with 2.8 million people, whose annual operating expenses of over $3.7 billion translate into a $10 billion impact, without counting almost $1.4 billion in projected capital investments before the end of 2011. Then, add in the expenditures of nearly 185,000 students, 40,000 employees, and their visitors to the regional economy. Nationally, the impact is substantially greater.

But this is not all. While higher education is a major economic force, wherever it exists, these institutions are more than economic engines in and of themselves. Higher education institutions also are teachers and partners whose intellectual, cultural, and capital assets spur human and community development as well. They are the source of new medicines, new legal theories, new understanding of society, and new ways of thinking and expression, through teaching, scholarship, and service. At Adelphi, initiatives such as Vital Signs, the social health indicators reports; the Parenting Institute; the Critical Issues lecture series; the “Exploring Critical Issues” television program; the Long Island Non-profit Leadership Institute; the Center for Social Innovation; internships, volunteer work, and community research; and a robust cultural calendar, all add new insights and understanding to important segments of society.

These roles, by the way, are often under-appreciated by policy makers. They and others focus on the need for engineers, scientists, and computer wizards without considering the number of technicians and technologists each requires, or the school teachers, police officers, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and volunteers who make our communities attractive and livable. Cold Spring Harbor Labs, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and science and engineering enterprises in general, could not exist without the infrastructure essential for their creative activity. Colleges and universities play a major role in supporting these functions as well. They use their intellectual, cultural, and physical assets to support society, hopefully as ethical institutions.

Universities as ethical entities

As ethical forces in society, universities must hold up a mirror as well as a spotlight. In recent years, I have seen troubling images. We have read about financial aid directors who took rewards from certain financial institutions and promoted these lenders to their students; institutions that ignore large numbers of alumni so that the denominator used to calculate the percentage of alumni donors each year, an important criterion for News and World Reports rankings, is higher than it would otherwise be, institutions that do the same when they “omit” certain categories of students when calculating average SAT scores to be reported to college guides. Some institutions even “bulk up” their annual giving percentage by applying the senior class gift to 100 percent of the graduating class, even if only 10 percent donate, and counting each senior class gift over five years – even if initial donors do not repeat.

How can universities be a critic of society, as well as creator and curator, if they cannot withstand scrutiny? Why is it that universities have crossed the ethical “line in the sand”?

One explanation is the unintended consequence of two decades of pressure for public-private partnerships that distort an institution’s mission-market balance; of encouragement to find new sources of cash, in lieu of state support for public institutions and tuition increases for both public and private campuses; of rewards to administrators for increasing non-student revenue – even when the assets valued and sold, such as athletics, are related to students. The law of unintended consequences is having a field day on campuses because states do not want to keep taxes in line with needs, and public and private campuses are pressured to be entrepreneurial by “selling” assets for boosters’ support.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. For every example of ethical breakdown, I can cite hundreds of cases of positive behavior. Universities are not only teaching ethics and environmental sensitivity, they are behaving as ethical and “green” institutions and partnering with civic groups, schools, businesses and vendors to promote best practices.

Colleges are working closely with school districts in preparing new teachers and providing continuing professional development to teachers, principals, and superintendents in areas such as science, math, technology, foreign languages, writing, and leadership.

Universities are employing a range of tools to assess student learning and improve faculty teaching. There are more instruments and databases available now than ever before to assess institutional effectiveness, and they are used. All accrediting bodies expect their use, as well as reports on both progress and comparisons to benchmarks.

University laboratories are exploring epidemics such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, how people learn, and aging, among numerous other critical issues, such as poverty, water availability and quality, and environmental degradation. Higher education institutions foster global literacy, leadership training for non-profit groups, and voluntarism in local communities. Think of students on spring break helping others in Appalachia, Haiti, and inner-city schools. Athletes volunteer to feed the homeless and bring joy to the disabled. Students and faculty undertake research to assist communities and senior citizens. Faculty scholarship leads to scientific breakthroughs.

The purpose of this issue is to explore major issues in American higher education either being considered or to be contemplated by high education scholars, policy makers, leaders, and others. The theme of this special issue is set by the lead essay, “The Modern American University: A Love Story”, which explores those areas of higher education which inspire admiration, cause anguish, and give rise to heightened anticipation.

Robert A. ScottAdelphi University, New York, New York, USA.

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