Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

by Katherine Jo

Katherine Jo is a doctoral student specializing in Philosophy of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the ethical dimensions of liberal learning and the roles and responsibilities of teachers in students’ ethical development, particularly in higher education.

Editors’ Note: This essay is the third in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.

I agree with Eric’s observations and will just add a few of the lasting impressions the seminar made on me. As a doctoral student in the Philosophy of Education who focuses on higher education and spends a considerable amount of time reading critiques of higher education, I found the seminar both illuminating and heartening. It was illuminating because I am not privy to what goes on in faculty and administrator meetings, nor have I had extensive conversations with many faculty and administrators about their views on the current state of higher education and their work. Eric and I weren’t sure how many people would attend, so we were delighted that the seminar was filled to capacity (we even had to turn people away). More importantly, it was clear from the enthusiastic participation of nearly everyone in the room that the issues we were discussing are a pervasive concern among faculty and administrators from a variety of institutions. I sensed that the participants were hungry for a space to not only voice their frustration and discouragement but also to work toward solutions. A number of people came up to us afterward, expressing deep gratitude and an interest in working with us to continue the conversation.

The seminar was heartening because, not only did participants not express hopelessness, as Eric wrote, but also the conversation never devolved into finger-pointing; instead, it had a tone of genuine searching, including searching within. One participant pointed out that perhaps one of the causes of this gap is evident in the way the seminar and the Chronicle piece we drew from were framed: that academics see themselves as separate from “the public.” She suggested that we might be served well by moving away from this us-them dichotomy and considering how academics are also part of the public. The participant’s point encouraged us to move toward finding common ground, which I think is important, but I think another way to think about it is what Eric mentioned above—how academics and higher education institutions feed into the very attitudes and narratives we say we’re fighting. For instance, another participant pointed out that academics understand their work in terms of knowledge production (i.e., business terms) rather than student success.

Although there wasn’t enough time to discuss any suggestions in depth, the participants seemed energized by hearing a few practical ideas, some of which Eric mentioned above, and seem to me fruitful topics for future conference workshops. I found the idea of helping students become ambassadors for the value of their education particularly compelling. In addition, we briefly discussed how we, as teachers, could work to shift students’ instrumental attitudes toward their learning by directly confronting them with the question of what their purpose in college is, which few students are ever directly asked to reflect on, and questioning the credentialing model of education. This is something all faculty can do at the beginning of the semester as a way of framing their course and the very process of learning. In my own experience as a teaching assistant (in a course on the historical and philosophical foundations of education), the professor’s frankness about what the educational process has become and that professor’s insistence that student learning has been stripped of meaning in many ways by the system resonates with the students. They gain a sense of agency about a process that they have largely been subject to.

In light of these two suggestions, I would love to see workshops that help faculty both find compelling ways to invite students into a new way of experiencing their education in their courses and develop specific assignments that help students reflect on and articulate the ways that their education is shaping their lives. It seems to me that these are changes that academics can make in the short-term that can have a direct impact on students, and perhaps, in the long-term, could be part of closing the gap between “academics” and the “public.”

Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

by Eric Bain-Selbo

Eric Bain-Selbo is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University-Kokomo. He also is the Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. His research spans across the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies, focusing primarily on social ethics, political philosophy, comparative religion, cultural criticism, and issues in higher education.

Editors’ Note: This essay is the second in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.

First, I certainly felt like everyone agreed that there is a gap between what the public thinks of higher education (for example, a credentialing service that helps to prepare young people to make money) and what academics think of higher education (for example, educating for life-long learning, the production of knowledge, preparation for active citizenship, etc.).

Second, I think there was agreement that the blame for this gap (if, in fact, someone or some group should be considered blameworthy) is not simply the public—that, in fact, both sides are responsible for the gap. For example, one of the reasons that the public might think of higher education as merely a credentialing service for future income is that those of us in higher education have sold what we do in exactly that way: think of the famous and often-cited statistic that college graduates will make a million dollars more over their lifetimes than non-college graduates. There also seemed to be a general recognition that even though higher education is an unusual business, it still is a business of sorts. Academics often fool themselves into thinking that higher education is somehow outside the “real world,” but they could serve themselves well by learning more about the financing and fiscal realities of higher education. A deeper understanding of the “business” of higher education might allow academics to understand better the public’s perspective.

Third, while there certainly was a fair amount of frustration about the gap between the public and academics, I did not sense hopelessness. Participants believed that those of us in higher education could do something to address the gap. In particular, we need to do a better job of providing a more compelling narrative about higher education (including historical perspective and data)—particularly with regard to its public goods and not just its private goods. Participants also recognized that part of their work must be with students—particularly helping them understand and articulate what they are learning beyond the specific content of courses. In many ways, our graduates should become the most effective ambassadors for a more robust public understanding of higher education.

In short, I was heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. I also thought that the kind of conversation we had would be one worth continuing at future professional meetings but especially on campuses across the country.



To Break Through the Ivory Tower’s Glass Ceiling, Let’s Monetize Service to the University

by Art Remillard Saint Francis University.

Teaching, scholarship, and service—the “holy trinity” of a professor’s professional life. When it comes time for tenure and promotion, the final decision hinges entirely on these three areas. To be sure, the weight given to each category differs from place to place. Research and teaching institutions respectively prioritize scholarly output and classroom competence. Irrespective of the setting, though, professors have at their disposal tangible artifacts to demonstrate their effectiveness in either domain, from books and articles to student evaluations and classroom observations from their colleagues.

When it comes to service, though, things get hazy—especially when it’s university-related work. This category gets reduced to a mere list of committees, searches, and assorted administrative tasks. Accordingly, much like the Supreme Court’s infamous definition of pornography, those reviewing these lists assume that they know a sufficient service record when they see it. Continue reading