The Value of Variety in American Higher Education


Last year, I received the sad news that a small Catholic college in New England with which I had personal and congregational connections had decided to close.p. Its faculty, staff, students, and alumni expressed great consternation. Unlike some other colleges in similar desperate condition, this institution did not attempt emergency measures or last-gasp appeals. The decision of the governing board was irreversible, and by the end of the school year, the college joined other underfunded institutions that recently have closed their doors.p. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, new private institutions and new branches of state higher education systems have been taking shape on drawing boards or building sites. Within the Catholic network alone, new colleges have been planned in Georgia and Florida.p. From the vantage point of history, it may be inevitable that the cycle of life and death applies to higher education entities just as it does to living creatures and organizations. The reality, looking at the negative side, is that some colleges eventually are shown to have chosen the wrong location, or they lose their sense of mission, battle with chronic underfunding, or suffer from a string of incompetent administrators. A closing also may be caused by regional economic decline, or increased local competition for students, or even natural disaster.p. On the positive side, the opening of a new institution may spring from favorable demographic changes or a benefactor with a vision or improved economic conditions. In state-supported higher education, expansion seems to go along with periods of budget surpluses as well as heightened demand.p. The point is, in the midst of what may seem like natural forces of contraction and enlargement, we all have an interest in sustaining the hallmark variety in the types and sizes of colleges and universities that constitute our countryis loosely organized system of higher education.p. Such heterogeneity simply doesnit exist in many other parts of the world. The characteristic pattern elsewhere is a strong ministry of education at the federal level and a resulting monolithic form of state-supported higher education. This tendency is even more pronounced in countries that have autocratic or totalitarian forms of government. Even in democratic countries, either the number of private institutions is marginal or their capacity to gain academic respect is limited by the absence of a tradition of philanthropy directed to higher education.p. By contrast, we in the United States have benefited enormously from the rich array of institutions, each with its distinctive sense of purpose, tradition, and constituencies deliberately served. Nowhere else can one find institutions specifically created to serve underrepresented minorities or Native Americans, for example. In no other country is there such an impressive range of religious-affiliated institutions (such as the 130 or so currently under Roman Catholic auspices) reflecting the multiple religious traditions present here.p. We have single-sex colleges and military academies and small liberal arts colleges. Community colleges provide opportunities for adult learners, recent immigrants, and those holding full-time jobs. Land-grant universities, local and regional campuses, and world-class flagship institutions serve millions of students. The Ivies and other top research institutions are among the best in the world. Even the newest entrepreneurial for-profit education and e-learning providers contribute to the diversity of opportunity and access that characterizes American higher education.p. In the face of todayis challenging economic climate and intense pressures from our multiple constituencies, I urge boards to lend encouragement and support to one another across the spectrum of institutional diversity. Our differentiation of identity, mission, and sense of purpose is our greatest national resource.p. I recommended three concrete steps: (1) Get to know board members from other higher education institutions; (2) read widely in the literature on higher education; and (3) be a public advocate for all of American higher education, especially in the face of budgetary pressures and sometimes-hostile critiques.p. We share more in common than we sometimes realize. We should all shed a tear when one of our peer institutions succumbs to harsh circumstances beyond its control. But we also should take heart from the persistence and strength of the vast majority of colleges and universities in this country. We have inherited what arguably is the worldis best and most diverse system of higher education. May we do everything we can to enhance it.p. p. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., is president of the University of Notre Dame.

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