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 University
, the 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.