To Fight Skepticism, Colleges Need To Engage With the Public

Here’s one associate dean’s pitch for how colleges can make a better case for themselves: Start talking with the citizens who are just down the street.


Colleges Ignore Their Neighbors at Their Own Peril

It’s Barbara Will’s last year as an associate dean at Dartmouth College — and she wants to get some things off her chest.

Here’s the main one: Elite institutions like hers are doing themselves a disservice by not engaging more with their communities.

Skepticism about the value of higher education is growing, and colleges need to be doing more to make their case to the public, says Will, who is associate dean for the arts and humanities and an English professor.

“We’re just in this little bubble,” she says. “There’s a lot at stake.”

What’s encouraging, she says, is that the public seems hungry for discussion of complex ideas beyond partisan talking points. She sees that everywhere, and among citizens who have no affiliation with the college — people who often live and work just down the street.

“There are incredibly vital and robust programs all around us,” she says. Take the nearby veterans hospital. The book group there is reading The Iliad and The Odyssey and discussing experiences of war. A local bar offers public discussions of the Classics.

“Allies are everywhere around us,” she says, “waiting for the university walls to come tumbling down.”

How To Be Open

Colleges are missing out by not interacting more with these kinds of groups, she says. And there’s a lot they can be adding to, and learning from, the dialogue.

The question she’s been trying to answer as a college leader is this: How do we open things up so people can step into the room and feel like they can have these conversations?

She’s part of an effort to create a center on campus where the public can gather for thoughtful discussion — across different backgrounds, political views, and educational levels. Dartmouth, with 50 community partners, has applied for a federal grant to renovate a campus space for such a meeting ground. It would be available for anyone in the community to use.

“It’s the classical idea of a forum,” she says.

What Are We Doing for Society?

Here are other ideas she has for what individuals and colleges can do:

Engage with the public through courses. She cites her colleague whose class worked with women in a county prison to write and stage a play, confronting issues of privilege, poverty, and injustice. A documentary film, “It’s Criminal,” was made about the class.

Offer experiential learning that gets students into communities. Dartmouth, for example, offers a social-impact practicum. Brown has a social innovation initiative.

Model how to disagree. Will loves, for example, how Cornel West, a philosophy professor at Harvard, and Robert George, a legal scholar at Princeton, traveled around to talk about their differences and the importance of civil dialogue and a liberal education.

“This is a question of our own identity,” Will says. “What are we doing for our society? And how can we maximize that, and make it more legible or visible?”

— Sara Hebel

Asking Questions About Food Labor on Campus

Last week several news organizations in Alabama and Mississippi published stories that examined the economics and labor practices of campus dining. They were part of a broader program about the work of food led by the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

John T. Edge, director of the alliance, says the nation is going through a shift in its relationship to food. A decade ago, he says, the smart questions to ask were about sourcing of food and use of natural resources. Now the important questions he wants to raise are about human resources, about how we treat people who bring the food to our table.

When he asked local journalists to consider how this played out at universities, he says he didn’t expect the framing that emerged from the reporting. Because the people who work in campus dining halls often work on contracts, they have different benefits from those who are university employees. “It created a second, and arguably lower, class of employee,” Edge says.

Amy Yurkanin, an investigative reporter at AL.com, says she was surprised by just how much this was on the minds of the dining workers she talked with at the University of Alabama. They work on campus but are very aware of the different status that comes with not actually being campus employees. “They clearly felt the difference.”

Spotlight

Historically Black Colleges’ Sink-or-Swim Moment

The legacy of these colleges is in every thread of American life, writes Delece Smith-Barrow, a senior editor for The Hechinger Report, in this opinion piece. HBCUs make up only 3 percent of four-year colleges, but they have produced 80 percent of the nation’s black judges, 50 percent of its black doctors, and 50 percent of its black teachers. Now, she says, these institutions are on the brink of disaster. (The New York Times)

Trump Education Official To Resign and Call for Mass Student-Loan Forgiveness

A. Wayne Johnson called the student-loan system “fundamentally broken” and endorsed canceling most of the nation’s outstanding student debt. “The time has come for us to end and stop the insanity,” he said. (The Wall Street Journal)

At 69, She’s Still Paying Off $12,000 of Student Debt. It Isn’t Just a Millennial Problem.

Older Americans — ages 65 and over — werethe fastest-growing demographic of student loan holders, according to a government report from 2016, and the most likely to be in default. (The Texas Tribune)

New Records Show Years of UNC’s Animal Research Violations, But Others Go Unreported

Records obtained by the newspaper document numerous incidents that violated federal guidelines or institutional protocols, including a pig’s death caused by human error and confusion among researchers that led to 11 mice starving to death. (The Daily Tar Heel)

Recommendation Corner

Two things that we enjoyed this week that have nothing to do with higher ed:

Dolly Parton’s America. A limited run podcast series from WNYC and Jad Abumrad of Radiolab. “In this intensely divided moment, one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton — but why? That simple question leads to a deeply personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America’s great icons.” The first two of nine episodes are available now and they’re fascinating.

Social Media Has Not Destroyed A Generation. A thorough look in Scientific American at research into what social-media use is doing to teenagers. The effects on mental health, some researchers say, are often very small, but that doesn’t make for attention-grabbing studies or headlines. Two researchers “measured the percent of variance in well-being that was explained by social media use and found that technology was no more associated with decreased well-being for teenagers than eating potatoes. Wearing glasses was worse.”

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