The New American College – Two Decades Late

Perhaps the late Ernie Boyer’s argument – service to society as the primary mission of higher education – hasn’t been abandoned altogether


Ernest L. Boyer

The late Ernest Boyer was a hugely influential voice in higher education policy during the latter part of the 20th century. He was the chancellor of the giant State University of New York (SUNY) system, before becoming the U.S. commissioner of education (a position that later was changed to “secretary”); he ended his career as the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyer was very comfortable taking on the higher education establishment and calling out its weaknesses as he perceived them. For example, he believed that American higher education began to lose its way after WW-II, when the National Science Foundation was established (1950) and the National Institutes of Health were greatly expanded, making federal research dollars available, in increasingly larger amounts, to campus-based researchers. Boyer was visibly concerned that the growing emphasis on university-based research was coming at the expense of the historic emphasis on high-quality undergraduate education.

In 1994, Boyer published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Creating the New American College.” He opened the article with these words:

“How can American higher education successfully contribute to national renewal? Is it possible for the work of the academy to relate more effectively to our most pressing social, economic, and civic problems?”

Later in his article Boyer said the following:

“I’m concerned that in recent years, higher education’s historic commitment to service seems to have diminished. I’m troubled that many now view the campus as a place where professors get tenured and students get credentialed… And what I find most disturbing is the growing feeling in this country that higher education is a private benefit, not a public good” [emphasis in the original].

Boyer makes it abundantly clear that the designation of research (“publish or perish”) as the primary mission of today’s universities is very much a modern phenomenon, and one that takes the American university far away from its origins. He points out that, while in the colonial era the first colleges were founded by various religious denominations for the purpose of training clergymen and educating pious gentlemen (there were no women’s colleges at that time), purely secular institutions became the norm after Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania in 1740 – and their purpose was broader and more inclusive than the mission of the original church-related colleges.

Franklin stated the purpose (or mission) of the University of Pennsylvania “as consisting in an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family” [spelling, capitalization and italics in the original].

“Service to society” as a mission was embraced by the public universities as they were established in the closing years of the 18th century and in the first few decades of the 19th century – and service was also very clearly the purpose behind the founding of the land-grant universities (beginning in 1862, following passage of the Morrill Act).

Even when graduate education and research began at major universities in the latter part of the 19th century, service to society remained their primary mission. Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of The Johns Hopkins University (1876), the first university in America to be established using the German research university model, had this to say in his inaugural address:

“[Universities should] make for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in the schools, less bigotry in the temple, less suffering in the hospitals, less fraud in business, less folly in politics.”

The presidents of Harvard, Princeton and Stanford offered similar comments at various times over the following three decades. My point is: Service to society was the stated purpose of even the most prestigious American universities well into the 20th century – and in his paper, Boyer points out that this theme of service was, in large part, the basis for the G.I. Bill and the Peace Corps, mid-20th century initiatives.

Boyer challenged the higher education community to restore service to society as its primary value, when he said:

“Violence, unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and pollution often occur at the very doorsteps of some of our most distinguished colleges and universities. How can the nation’s campuses stay disengaged?”

He called on the faculty:

To “apply knowledge to real-life problems [and] use that experience to revise their theories.”

He said:

That “institutions must become less imitative and more creative.”

He suggested:

That “the goal of such colleges would be to bring knowledge into intimate relationships with the small, daily problems of real people and real neighborhoods.”

Boyer’s paper, coming as it did from one of the great leaders in higher education, was widely praised and celebrated – but it was ultimately all but ignored. Sadly, very little has changed in higher education in the 21 years since the paper’s publication. And the irony is that Boyer’s call for action, for the reinstitution of service to society as the primary mission of higher education institutions, is at least as relevant today as it was in Boyer’s day.

Roger Williams University responded to Boyer’s call by engaging in a campus-wide, yearlong review of its core values, core purpose and overarching university goal. Our new core purpose, or mission, is just eight words long: To strengthen society through engaged teaching and learning. Coincidentally, our new overarching university goal is also just eight words: To build the university the world needs now.

Taken together, it is our stated purpose to give each one of our students the opportunity for at least one meaningful experiential education project – often a semester-long project-based learning experience. This approach will ensure that students learn how to apply theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom to practical, community-based (and community-identified) problems.

Project-based learning will ensure that, in addition to acquiring experience in their discipline, students will obtain experience in working with students from different disciplines; in perfecting their negotiation and collaboration skills; in working with clients; in meeting deadlines; in oral and written communication; in analysis and synthesis – the very skills that employers say are too often missing in today’s college graduates.

But the value of this approach is not limited to the student. The organization that identified the project on which the students are working also benefits, by receiving the value that a team of intelligent, eager and competent students (under the guidance of one or more professors) brings to the problem at hand. In one Roger Williams University project, now completed, the work of the student team allowed the community to receive a federal grant of more than $800,000, and made the students’ plan a reality.

Students on these projects are clearly moved and motivated by the gratitude they receive from the organizations with which they work – and many of our students commit to doing more community-based work once they graduate. To the extent they do, they will continue to strengthen society throughout their lives.

Roger Williams University thinks of itself as epitomizing The New American College. We hope that Ernie Boyer would have approved.