Higher Education at a Crossroads

Marvin Krislov

With student activism sweeping the country over issues that include sexual assault, police brutality and racial inequality, American higher education is at a crossroads, as it was in the 1960s when college students were galvanized by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

We must ask ourselves now, as educators did then, how best to serve a generation of students as they face evolving challenges that stem from changing demographics, rising income inequality, political tumult and doubts about whether the nation can overcome its deepest divides.

How do educators sustain the standards of excellence that have made American higher education an international model, while adapting to changing circumstance?

How can the value of liberal arts be demonstrated when public discourse increasingly defines educational value in terms of initial income?

How will higher education create a truly inclusive environment for a diverse group of students who question the expectation that they should accept traditional modes of teaching and learning?

While our individual institutions have diverse missions, certain universal principles should guide higher education in this new era.

First, the faculty and staff must maintain high academic standards and rigor. A core value of higher education is empowering students with the intellectual tools they will need to engage our country’s most important challenges through their professions and service.

Second, we must welcome diverse populations and create a learning environment in which all of our students can succeed. We must teach them to embrace multiple perspectives and viewpoints as critical learning opportunities, while valuing their personal experiences.

Third, our institutions must serve as laboratories in which students, faculty members, staff members and trustees collaborate and compromise to create sustainable futures that balance idealism with financial realities.

Fourth, we must help our students find meaning in their education by communicating the range of options and opportunities to apply learning effectively and by embracing new possibilities created by technology.

As the world changes around us, educational institutions must lead courageously. All parties with an investment in higher education should have a voice in these conversations: Student activists who are demanding a more relevant education; parents who are making emotional and material investments in their children; and faculty members who are protecting academic freedom. We all must learn from each other.

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