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Friday, October 06, 2017

The Life-Shaping Power of Higher Education | Inside Higher Ed - Views

Photo: Mavin Krislov
Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College from 2007 until 2017, became the eighth president of Pace University August 1, 2017 reflects on the challenges over the past decade -- and the one thing that hasn’t changed.

Photo: iStock/DrAfter123

As I begin my first full semester as president of Pace University after serving for 10 years as president of Oberlin College, I find myself looking to the past and the things I’ve learned. I can’t help but reflect on the extraordinary changes I’ve witnessed in American higher education along the way. 

This past decade has been one of transformation for our nation and our colleges and universities. Barack Obama was twice elected president of the United States. We experienced the Great Recession -- the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Income inequality has grown from a significant problem to a polarizing divide, with ripples felt in every corner of our society. The internet has become the newswire of the world and the center of our economic might, as well as a battlefield where terror is waged and democracy is tested. 

Same-sex marriage has moved from limited recognition in a few states to the boldly embraced law of the land. Rather than evolving into a postracial society, we’ve realized we have a long, long way to go. And after a bare-knuckle election that splintered families and friendships, Donald Trump was elected president of our not so United States. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” 

American higher education has also been on a journey. There have been many changes and challenges during my time as a college president. But one important thing hasn’t changed: the value of a college education and its ability to transform students’ lives. 

That life-shaping power sometimes gets overlooked in the shifting landscape of higher education. Colleges and universities are facing an array of economic, demographic and sociopolitical challenges. Among the most significant is the public’s changing perception of the purpose and value of a college education. The short version: many Americans think a college degree should be a ticket to a specific job -- the cheaper the ticket, the better. 

Campus climate issues have also changed dramatically since 2007. While many small residential colleges exist in a kind of bubble, many of those climate issues mirror what is happening in our society. Race is one example. The realization of a postracial society has not been achieved, and the nation has seen race become a much more contentious issue. The killings of unarmed black men by police officers spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and fueled student activism on campuses across the country. The hatred and bigotry displayed in Charlottesville, Va., undoubtedly will spark difficult conversations and more this fall. 

Ensuring free speech is another campus issue that has grown more challenging over the past decade. In the classrooms and on campuses, getting students to discuss difficult issues freely and respectfully remains a challenge. 

Of course, no reference to free speech is complete without also acknowledging the mechanism by which it is exercised. Social media and technology have been a decidedly mixed blessing in promoting civil discourse. Read the comments section on just about any news story having to do with one of America’s top liberal arts schools, and you’ll find no shortage of trolls and vitriolic anti-intellectualism. 

Yet one thing hasn’t changed: the value of a liberal arts education. I received an outstanding liberal arts education as an undergraduate, and it continues to shape my career and my life. I firmly believe liberal education is the best preparation a young person can have for the job market and a rewarding, meaningful life as a citizen of our democracy.    
Continuing the Great Conversation
Today, however, liberal education finds itself under fire more often than in the past. The primary reason for this -- to borrow a phrase from the movie Cool Hand Luke -- is a failure to communicate. Many colleges and universities that embrace liberal education suffer from a certain degree of self-satisfaction. We know our graduates do well in their lives and careers. We celebrate that within our own communities. But as a group we don’t do an effective job of communicating that success to the broader public. We need to better explain what liberal education is. We need to better articulate what we do -- and why it is so important for our country and the world.

Source: Inside Higher Ed

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