The role of higher education


Recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote “We should be able to….establish a set of concrete understandings about what government should and shouldn’t do. We should be able to have a grounded conversation based on principles 95 percent of Americans support.” Instead, as former congressman (and now Chairman of the National Endowment on the Humanities) Jim Leach has pointed out “it looks like increasingly people are lining up on one side or the other and they're, in effect, forming camps where the great American middle is at least proportionately very poorly represented in legislative bodies, particularly in Congress. “

Mr. Leach points us to an institution that might help us work ourselves out of this problem, but first we need to rethink that institution just a bit. That institution is the modern American university. As Leach notes: “I was told today, a university president was saying more students were lost at his university due to debt than bad grades. And that is one of the real challenges of our time: How we can afford a good university and public education at the post-secondary level?”

The simplistic answer is of course, by making a commitment to our universities. But we are in the throes of doing the opposite. I somewhat humorously, in my email signature line, refer to myself as a professor at Boise “State” University, because our funding from the state of Idaho is at 20% percent and declining. Public funding for other universities can be even lower. Where do we find the additional funding? What we do right now is chase huge research grants, like every other university. Those grants fall primarily in the area of what some call Big Science and Big Engineering.

 As someone who works in the interface of science and public policy I have benefitted from some of this funding and I know many researchers at Boise State who are doing interesting and important work. But, this funding chase can come with a cost. Teaching gets de-emphasized, as do programs and departments where funding streams are tiny. Undergraduates don’t matter as much anymore, graduate students that can help work on the research grants do matter. Some of this is not new, particularly at institutions more advanced in research than Boise State, but we are starting to see it too.

But what else suffers is the role of the university and its faculty in helping society deal with the concerns raised by Brooks and Leach above. By “helping deal” I mean exactly that, as part of a conversation facilitating and helping produce information that might be useful in collective problem solving, not in narrow “expert-centered” preaching to the un-anointed. 

For example, a few years ago I team taught a course witl Keith Allred, who was our Frank Church Professor that year (now he’s running for governor!). Our topic was collaboration and the public lands. We had our students interview a number of individuals about possible options on the seemingly irresolvable roadless issue in Idaho. We were able to generate some interesting alternatives (such as a backcountry recreation area) that we sent forward to key decision makers and their staff, who had also been involved with the class, that helped people understand how reframing and rethinking an issue could move discussions forward.

Sadly this role is simply not found in a big funding stream today. This role might help society think through problems, and might help create more public support for the university if society sees the university perform this role well, but I’m dubious. There’s not much money in this type of university work.

John Freemuth is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise "State" University.