What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 1)

Attack of the Politicians

Recently, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who some consider a potential contender for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, has been in the news for comments he made when announcing his proposed state budget (The New York Times, Feb. 4 and Feb. 17, 2015; Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5 and Feb. 16, 2015). In addition to calling for a $300 million, two-year cut in state appropriations to the University of Wisconsin system (a 13 percent reduction from its current appropriation), Gov. Walker also called for a change in the university’s mission statement, removing century-old language such as “search for truth,” and “improve the human condition,” and substituting instead “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Although he later removed that language, citing “a drafting error,” his focus on workforce development is very much in keeping with similar statements from the Republican governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina, among others, in the recent past. Media pundits have speculated that these comments presage a Republican higher education agenda, with a focus on further reductions in state appropriations for public universities; an emphasis on vocational training; and tying state funding to the job placement rate for graduates and to the size of their starting salaries (Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 30, 2013). The newly elected Republican governor of Illinois has just announced his intention to cut $387 million from the state’s higher education budget (Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 19, 2015), with almost $210 million cut from the University of Illinois alone – a figure that represents nearly one-third of the state’s current appropriation.

What’s going on here? Do these criticisms of higher education represent political cover for politicians who feel obliged to cut state appropriations because of poor tax returns and a pressing sense of urgency from other areas of the state budget? Or is this more deeply philosophical, wherein governors see public universities as state entities very much within their power to change and shape as they see fit, while they are in office?

There is a third possible explanation. Perhaps these governors have tapped into a deep-seated resentment by the electorate of the perceived aloofness, indifference or unresponsiveness of higher education institutions to the plight of the average taxpayer. Perhaps they are taking advantage of the deep schisms that exist in our country today, on almost every issue imaginable. It’s certainly the case that there are very few examples of governors who have cut state appropriations to higher education, or who have criticized management of the campuses, subsequently being voted out of office by irate taxpayers. Indeed, the evidence points the other way: criticizing higher education apparently plays well with the general populace, and therefore we can expect to see more, and louder, criticisms in the future.

Determining the true purpose of higher education would allow us greater insight into the wisdom or folly of the political actions now under way at both federal and state levels aimed at changing how higher education functions in America.

A Little History

In a recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014), Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, looks in detail at the conflicting views regarding the purpose of higher education in America since its origins in 1636 with the founding of Harvard. It seems that the purpose of higher education has been a source of controversy for almost its entire history. Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of the value of the liberal arts, and founded the University of Virginia with that perspective in mind; Benjamin Franklin, with little formal education of his own, advocated for practical education (even though he subsequently founded the University of Pennsylvania, an institution that began as a liberal arts school). George Washington Carver, a son of slaves, strongly pushed for the true emancipation of African Americans through the acquisition of practical skills. W.E.B. Du Bois, the early 20th century black leader, maintained that the “talented tenth” (of the black male population) should be educated in the liberal arts, in order that they might become more effective leaders.

Historically, the earliest colleges in this country were liberal arts institutions, including the earliest public universities (the first of these date to 1790). With the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, however, wherein public schools of agriculture and mechanical arts (what we now call “engineering”) were to be established in every state for the explicit purpose of improving the nation’s economy, liberal and professional studies have co-existed, eying each other warily at times, but generally recognizing that higher education was a large enough tent to support both schools of thought.

Things became more confused with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876, built as it was on the then-new German concept of a research university. Universities, as opposed to colleges, were conceived as places that focused on graduate education and research, rather than on undergraduate education and teaching. By the early years of the 20th century, both Harvard and Yale had augmented their strong undergraduate programs with both professional and graduate programs, and firmly established the concept of the modern university as we know it today.

The public flagship universities followed suit, and their missions were expanded (generally by statute or charter) to include undergraduate and graduate education; research; and service to the interests of the state. Most had (and now all have) both liberal arts and professional schools or colleges within the university’s framework. The liberal arts typically constitute the foundation program of general education (usually three or four semesters in the freshman and sophomore years); junior and senior years are focused on the “major” (and the major might be either a professional program or additional study in one of the liberal arts).

There are still a great many private colleges that have remained “colleges” – that is, offering no graduate education – but while most retain their liberal arts focus, some have added one or more professional programs (business programs are particularly common), and a few have added graduate programs as well, if only to develop new revenue streams.

A visitor from another planet, viewing higher education in America today, would have a difficult time understanding its actual purpose. Is it to prepare people to obtain relatively sophisticated jobs (i.e., those requiring a college degree)? Is it to ensure that, by the time of their graduation, students have a broad understanding of the many facets of the human condition and of the world around them? Is it to learn how to think, and thereby how to learn, such that they become lifelong learners? Or is it to “find” themselves, to “develop their voice,” to “discover their passion?”

The answer is “yes” – American institutions of higher education aspire to do all of those things, although particular institutions may emphasize one of these purposes more than the others. As I said, higher education is a big tent: there is room for many purposes.

But suppose society’s interests change. Suppose society says it has need of certain things not now being done by higher education, and perhaps it has less need for things currently being done by higher education. Can society expect that higher education institutions will respond to this expression of new or changed interests? And what happens if the higher education institutions don’t listen? Can society demand that colleges and universities pay attention to its needs? And if the answer to that is “yes,” there are two follow-along questions: (1) For public institutions, isn’t the governor effectively the voice of society, and therefore shouldn’t public institutions respond positively to what the governor request of them? (2) Should private universities, most of which receive no state funding in any significant amount, also be expected to respond to changes in society’s interests? Or are they exempt because they are private?

We’ll address those questions next week in Part 2: Higher Education Strikes Back.