University Presidents Look Ahead

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By Ellen Gilbert 

“There is always a crisis.” – Andrew Delbanco in College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be

he cover story on a recent issue of Consumer Reports went straight to the point: “I kind of ruined my life by going to college,” it quoted a heavily indebted recent graduate. Her current balance due is $152,000, and she’s definitely not alone: according to recent reports some 42 million people owe $1.3 trillion in student debt.

Skyrocketing tuition fees are just one of the many challenges currently faced by American colleges, and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust readily acknowledges them. “There are undoubtedly many important issues confronting higher education, including tackling sexual assault on college campuses, expanding financial aid to lower income families, and arresting the decline of enrollment in the humanities,” she said in a recent email. “University leaders are working together with faculty, students, alumni and each other to address these matters.”

“Teaching is a messy process,” observes Harvard University English Professor Louis Menand, author of The Marketplace of Ideas. “There are more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, more than 18 million students, and more than 1 million faculty members,” he reports, citing the Digest of Education Statistics. “We can’t reasonably expect that all of those students will be well educated, or that every piece of scholarship or research worthwhile.”  Yet, he says, “we want to believe that the system, as large, as multitasking, and as heterogeneous as it is, is working for us.”

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Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust

Enduring Symbols

As she began her speech to the Harvard undergraduate class of 2016 last spring, Faust even went beyond the vicissitudes of everyday life on campus to wonder about the apparent world horrors reflected in recent headline news. “It’s as if we are being visited by the Four Horsemen,” she mused, citing terrorist attacks, racial strife, famine, and the Zika virus.

How are university leaders addressing “these [academic] matters” (much less evidence of the Apocalypse)? Faust encouraged her audience at Harvard to contemplate two “enduring symbols” on the campus of  “this magnificent institution” visible to them at that very moment: Widener Library and The Memorial Church.  “We have been here before,” she said recalling earlier eras threatened by the clouds of war, financial crises, epidemics, and more.  Anchored by their buildings and traditions, she suggested, the Harvard “model,” a long-lived “vehicle for veritas,” will prevail.

Clark’s Leep

Less than 50 miles west of Cambridge in the edgier city of Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University President David P. Angel has other ideas. The words “initiative,” “new,” “positive,” and “mentor” figured prominently in a recent interview with him. He’s clearly excited about what’s going on at this smaller liberal institution with a distinguished history; like Johns Hopkins it was founded in the late 19th-century on the model of German research university and is known as the only American university visited by Sigmund Freud during his 1909 trip to this country.

Clark’s Liberal Education and Effective Practice program (LEEP) figures prominently in Angel’s conversations.  LEEP was set in motion at Clark several years ago, and its apparent success as a different kind of approach to education has only accelerated Angel’s determination to implement it.  “Momentum is great at Clark right now,” he says.

An important premise of LEEP is that experience in the classroom is directly connected to experience in the world.  Angel points to a recently revamped art history class for undergraduates as a good example.  Looking at slides is out.  Instead, an art history professor and curator from the Worcester Art Museum challenge students to participate in every aspect of designing and curating a professional exhibit at the Museum.  The final project in a pilot initiative proved the point when the student-driven exhibition won a rave review in the New York Times, soon followed by a $620,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to incorporate similar teaching/experiential practices into the rest of Clark’s curriculum.

Figuring prominently in the mix, says Angel, are social justice and student projects abroad and at home where Clark has achieved noteworthy success in engaging with the neighborhood surrounding the campus. Tapping into the connections and know-how of Clark alums, and acknowledging different learning styles are important, too. “We are utterly convinced that this is the way to approach education,” Angel says. Educator Ken Robinson, whose TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design invitation-only) talk on creativity and education ranks among TED’s most watched events, agrees. “What David Angel is doing at Clark is a particularly refined version of what every head of a school should be aiming to do: honing and reshaping the school as necessary to fit the evolving needs of students and society,” Robinson writes in his book, Creative Schools.

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Clark University President David Angel in his office on February 18, 2016.  Photo by Matthew Healey for Clark University.

“The Most Exciting University in the World”

“I came to New York University (NYU) because I think it is the most exciting university in the world,” says Andrew Hamilton, who recently became president of the Greenwich Village-based campus.  “What I’ve learned from serving as the head of a European university [Oxford] for several years and as a provost of an American university [Yale] before that is that while every university is unique, the issues facing all universities—and all university presidents—are more alike than different,” he observes.

Hamilton’s approach is more inferential than Angel’s. “Campuses today can sometimes feel like a crucible, having to confront national issues in a very intense and concentrated way,” he says. “But I believe that it is part of the academic and social values that we instill in our students, which they in turn, take with them to the world beyond.” Although he did not cite specific initiatives in his emailed comments on NYU’s achievements and challenges, Hamilton also spoke of the place of the university in the world at large. “More than ever, 21st-century colleges must prepare students for a global future with global challenges,” he says, noting that NYU is “the U.S. university with the largest number of international students and the university that sends the greatest number of students to study abroad.”

Penn’s Compact 2020 and “Real Talk” at Bard

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann points to  “Penn Compact 2020” as a new initiative that  “builds on the past decade of progress. . . It is a far-reaching vision that outlines next steps to increase access to Penn’s exceptional intellectual resources; integrate knowledge across academic disciplines with emphasis on innovative understanding and discovery; and engage locally, nationally, and globally to bring the benefits of Penn’s research, teaching, and service to individuals and communities at home and around the world.”  There will be an opportunity to learn about “the power and promise of Penn Compact 2020” when Gutmann and Penn students lead a series of live conversations beginning Thursday evening, September 14.

Those concerned with the future of higher education may also be interested in a conference being sponsored by the  Hannah Arendt Center and Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College on October 20 and 21. “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion” promises to address some heavy-duty, hot-button issues.  “Is Title IX a positive way forward in addressing sexual discrimination?” its promotional material asks.  “Can we balance the right to practice one’s religion with the desire for inclusiveness? Are micro-aggressions the kinds of speech that should be disciplined? Does civility require limits on our right and obligation to speak our minds?” and, “should colleges and university campuses be safe spaces?”   The coordinators say that they are asking, “above all,” how college “can be a safe and inclusive space for asking hard and uncomfortable questions essential to our democracy?”

 Hamilton has high hopes for new initiatives at NYU.  “Whether it is designing an admissions policy that treats those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system fairly, or piloting a program to allow undocumented students from New York state to get scholarship aid on an equal footing, or creating an affordability task force that identifies new approaches to addressing the cost of college, we are building a community that teaches our students—both inside the classroom and out—to be prepared for a set of challenges that are global in nature and can transcend borders,” he says.

And while Harvard perceives itself to be anchored by august buildings and traditions, it too is looking to the future. “Universities play an indispensable role in society. . . harnessing technologies to expand access to knowledge, discovering new medical treatments and scientific approaches, and equipping future generations to be citizens in a world where their leadership will be greatly needed,” notes Faust.

“University presidents have a responsibility of leadership,” says Angel.  ‘There are tremendous challenges and you need insight, a sense of mission and the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of your students.” This includes, he says,  “a profound commitment to diversity; the ability to conduct ‘difficult conversations,’ making decisions about ‘reasonable’ financial investments, and a “guiding sense of values.”

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger expressed some of these values in a recent New York Times op-ed piece  (“Affirmative Action Isn’t Just a Legal Issue. It’s Also a Historical One”): “The Supreme Court’s decision this week in Fisher v. University of Texas is a profound relief, and a cause for celebration among those of us in higher education who have long insisted that affirmative action is vital to our schools’ missions and to society as a whole.”

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Aerial view of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Alumni Sensibilities

Besides questions about affordability, college administrators also face financial challenges in maintaining alumni support as campus environments evolve.  “Alumni from a range of generations say they are baffled by today’s college culture,” reported New York Times writer Anemona Hartocollis in an August 4 article.  Citing Amherst College, she described alumni who perceive students as being “too wrapped up in racial and identity politics,” taking “too many frivolous courses,” and repudiating “the heroes and traditions of the past by judging them by today’s standards, rather than in the context of their times.”  Schools like Princeton and Brown, where students have challenged the continued use of buildings named for people whose politics are now deemed morally offensive, know this very well. (Presidents Christopher Eisgruber of Princeton; Christina Paxson of Brown; Lee Bollinger of Columbia, Amy Gutmann of Penn, and Peter Salovey of Yale were unavailable for comment.)

Passion helps, of course. “We are a community like no other, united in love for our great University and proud to do together what we cannot do alone,” Gutmann has been quoted as saying. “This is our Penn.”

“When the time comes for me to pass the baton on to my successor, I suspect that I will share the words that John Sexton [Hamilton’s predecessor] shared with me,” says Hamilton, “That despite its size, its complexity and all the messiness and challenges that can come with it, in order to lead NYU, you must love NYU.”

Angel is both passionate and, not surprisingly, perhaps, pragmatic about being president of Clark University.  As a faculty member who was identified for his leadership potential several years before he actually became president, Angel appreciates the focused mentorship he received.  Understanding  “the deep sense in our community that we want to steward and continue our values,” he says, has enabled him to make a “rigorous and honest assessment” of Clark’s needs.

Menand would appear to applaud this “ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry.  It is not just asking questions about knowledge,” he writes, “it is creating knowledge by asking the questions.”

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The campus of New York City’s Columbia University