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.
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?”