Wrestling Over the Mission of the University

Jack M. Wilson, PhD
President-Emeritus, The University of Massachusetts and
Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and Innovation
The University of Massachusetts Lowell
April 24, 2012

We have recently seen books, articles, and speeches that have taken on the issue of the appropriate mission of the university.  Some, but not all, are quite well reasoned.   It may be the culture of partisanship that leads to some of the rhetorical excesses.

I was particularly struck by the recent comment of the Hunter Rawlings, AAU President, at the recent meeting of the AGB who (according to the Chronicle) “warned college leaders against bowing to public pressure to transform into job-training programs.”  I have been part of four major universities, on both the public and private side, and I have not felt that pressure.  The article posits some concern over the push away from “their presumed mission to produce better citizens.”   I think most of us in higher education would support producing better citizens as part of our mission, but that does not mean that there is no validity to other part of our mission –including preparing students to be productive in their chosen careers or being responsive to the economic and social needs of society.  Choosing words like “job training” or “corporate university” is done specifically to attempt to discredit the calls for Universities to be more responsive to the needs of the regional communities.

Those, usually outside the university, who are calling for change at Universities, frequently deploy their own disparaging characterizations like “Ivory Tower.”

In this 150th year since Vermont’s Justin Morrill created and advocated for the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 –creating our countries great land-grant universities, it would be good to revisit the mission that he envisioned in that seminal document.  The act was passed “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  Certainly Morrill envisioned a close coupling between that needs of society and needs for workforce development.

Thirty eight years earlier, the Dutch Patroon Stephen van Rensselaer created Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy NY “for the purpose of instructing persons ... in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”  Reading both documents in full suggests that Morrill must have been influenced by the van Rensselaer founding statement. 

In 1640 Harvard’s Founding statement known as New England’s First Fruits “After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and led the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.  Perhaps that was the most pressing workforce need of the time –educated ministers.

As recently as 1980, the United State Congress affirmed the importance of Universities to the social and economic health of the country with the passage of the Bayh-Dole act “to encourage maximum participation of small business firms in federally supported research and development efforts; to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities.

From the beginning society has created and supported universities, both public and private, to serve many important needs of society.  Interestingly, in each of these founding statements, it is the need of society which is placed front and center, and then the education of the students is called for to meet those societal needs.

Contrary to the Chronicle headline that blares “College Leaders Resist Pull to Stray From Mission,” it is far more accurate to suggest that those leaders are opposed to a return to the fundamental mission of a University.

A far better course would be for both sides to cool down their rhetoric and avoid the use of terms like “job training”, “ivory tower,” “corporate university,” and all the other language intended to divide and denigrate the opposition.

It would be far better to acknowledge that all universities are created to serve society.  There is no incompatibility between a focus on liberal arts education and a desire to serve a region’s workforce needs.  The entrepreneurial university, a framework that is being embraced by so many of our great universities, is not antithetical to a liberal education.

At a time when more and more is being demanded of our universities, they are receiving less and less support from society.  We should focus on our need to serve society and ask that society and our governments consider the benefits that have come to our country and the world from the support that society has provided to universities.  This is no time for a divisive fight over our mission that has no basis in history.

Read also:  Will the Ivory Tower Survive the Electronic Village?” J. M. Wilson  EDUCOM Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 12-16, March/April 1997.