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Colleges are powerful actors. They shape leaders. They bestow status. They define what it means to be educated.

In times of crises, when they’re at their best, colleges can facilitate tough conversations, they can spur economic renewal, they can attack systemic racism. But colleges often get in their own way. They can be insular, hierarchical, and blind to levers they could be using to help us confront our biggest challenges.

What social responsibility do colleges have at a time like this? And how well are they helping their communities navigate the enormous challenges of public health, racial injustice, and social inequity?

Leaders from Georgia State Universitythe University of the South, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison tackled these questions during a talk, hosted by Cooper Robertson, that I moderated this week. Here’s how they said colleges could do better:

Be an interrupter. Where you go to college, and if you go, affects your social and economic status, said Rodney Lyn,senior associate dean for academic and strategic initiatives at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. Colleges can do more to interrupt cycles of inequity in who benefits, Lyn said.

Here’s some of what he said they could change: Their reliance on standardized tests that create winners and losers in ways that favor students who already have more access to the system. Their use of legacy admissions that give a leg up to families who’ve benefited from selective colleges for generations. Tenure and promotion systems that don’t reward faculty for service and mentorship, work that can change patterns of student success.

“We’re powerful institutions in our communities, and we have incredible influence,” Lyn said. “Our institutions can do much more.”

Listen to students. They are leading the way right now, and they are creating space for older people to have critical conversations about race that weren’t happening before, said Reuben Brigety II, vice chancellor and president of the University of the South.

There’s a very important generational gap between students and the leaders of their campuses, Brigety said. Born in 1973, after the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, he considers himself part of the first generation of African-Americans born fully free and equal to other citizens under U.S. law. But he’s a relatively young college president; most can’t claim the same. At the same time, he said, students today have no lived memory of state-sanctioned inequality. That makes them impatient in demanding immediate change.

“They are essentially the voice of the future asking us critically, using the skills that we teach them in the academy, to take an honest, critical look at why our society is organized the way it is,“ Brigety said, “… and are appropriately demanding that we do things differently.”

Rethink what’s required. Colleges are responsible for providing a collective sense of history and historical context for race relations in our country, said Binnu Palta Hill, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Business. “We have to know what our journey has been to understand where we are today.”

But she’s surprised by the facts people don’t know, and the context they are missing. Facts, she said, like how Wall Street — where many of her students go on to work — had one of the largest slave markets in the United States.

One of the things that makes universities so powerful, Brigety said, is their credentialing function. They determine what constitutes an educated person. Liberal-arts degrees all require some basic understanding of topics like math, science, and English composition. Those are the basic skills colleges have decided we all need to function in, and understand, the world.

Brigety said colleges should add another mandatory skill: navigating difference, especially as workplaces grow more diverse. That will help us process not only our own understanding of ourselves, Brigety said, but also our understanding of the forces that shape our modern society.

— Sara Hebel

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Expanding Our Local Network

Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

We’re excited to announce that we’ll be expanding into Cleveland this fall, adding a full-time higher ed reporter to our local network through a partnership with Crain’s Cleveland Business. The collaboration is made possible through a grant from the Joyce Foundation, with whom we’re working to improve higher education reporting in the upper Midwest.

We’ll have more details to share soon. If you’re a reporter interested in covering higher ed, we’d love to hear from you:

  • To be added to our talent pool, email us your resume and a short cover letter.
  • To receive alerts about the Cleveland job and future positions, sign up here.

If you live or work in Cleveland, have ideas for what we should be covering in northeast Ohio, or are a higher ed journalist working in other Midwestern cities, we’d love to connect with you, too. Reach both Sara and Scott here.


More Than 6,600 Coronavirus Cases Have Been Linked to U.S. Colleges
A New York Times survey of hundreds of schools looks at the toll the virus has already taken on the country’s colleges and universities. (The New York Times)

Emails Reveal Troubled Search for University of Wisconsin President
Former University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen withdrew from a search last month that by most accounts appeared to be a done deal. (Anchorage Daily News)

Our Relationships With Tests Is Unraveling. Why Is Everyone So Conflicted About It?
Months of chaos, cancellations, and nail-gnawing anxiety have revealed a lot about our relationship with tests. It’s charged, conflicted, and at times abusive. And for many students, it has become even more intense. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Regional Public Colleges Prepare To Return to On-Campus Learning
Many regional public universities plan to open campuses this fall, against a backdrop of financial, political, and enrollment pressure — and a push by many students to return. (Inside Higher Ed)

With Colleges Closed, College Towns Can’t Pay Their Bills
When students went home in March, some college towns lost half their populations. Tax and utility revenues have dropped, and those cities are still wondering what sort of economies they’ll have in the fall. (Governing)

It’s Been a Year …

Thanks for your support, feedback, and ideas over this past year. We’re grateful for you and for the ways you’ve helped make us better.

The beginning of August marks a full year since we started this newsletter. Back then (a time that now feels like many lifetimes ago), we were explaining how we got here anyway and planning our road trip down the Mississippi River to talk with Americans about college.

From the start, we’ve also been talking a lot about how we want to use Open Campus to elevate two public goods — journalism and higher education. That only seems more urgent now. The pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis are set to deeply damage both.

How well colleges recover — and how well they help their communities recover — will determine how well society will be able to close wide and growing divides, by race and income, and begin to rebuild broken paths to social mobility. More than ever, we need dedicated, supported journalists on this beat in cities and states.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we could use your help:

Thank you again for helping us get this far.

Summer Break

This newsletter will be taking a short break. Be well, and we’ll see you back in your inbox in two weeks

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus