Higher Education and the Public

For the last several years, the Society for Values in Higher Education has sponsored a seminar session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU). We have explored topics such as the role of higher education in the moral development of students, the implications of free college tuition, the pedagogy of “wicked problems,” and many more. At the 2017 AACU meeting, we facilitated a seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.”

Our proposal (co-authored along with D. Gregory Sapp) described the session this way:

Skyrocketing tuition increases and a soft job market for college graduates have led to increasing public skepticism regarding higher education. Such skepticism has encouraged state legislators to continue to slash financial support for higher education. The loss of financial support leads to further tuition increases. What we have is a vicious cycle of skepticism and economic exigency (both for institutions and for students and their families) that leads to public distrust of higher education. If there is any hope of restoring significant public trust in higher education, academics and the public must have a “meeting of the minds” in regard to the purpose or value of higher education. The facilitators will lead a conversation about what we as academics value in higher education (particularly liberal education) and how to bridge the gap between what we value and what the public expects.

Approximately 25 faculty members, administrators, and even a higher education reporter joined us for an engaging conversation. We decided to structure the conversation around a special issue of The Chronicle Review from November 11, 2016. That special issue was looking at various questions about the central problems facing higher education today. Higher education experts and leaders answered the questions in short responses (no more than a sentence or two). We were particularly interested in two questions that seemed relevant to the perception and/or value gap between higher education and the public: What is the biggest misconception the public has about higher education? What is the biggest misconception that academics have about higher education?

We provided the seminar participants with handouts that listed the various responses by higher education experts and leaders, put the participants in groups, and asked the groups to identify those responses that seemed most important, significant, or correct.

In regard to the biggest misconceptions of the public, the two responses that stood out for the participants were the following:

That education is exclusively about providing a short-term economic benefit to the individual and the state. This is wrong on two levels: Economic benefits are not best measured in the short term, and the benefits of education far transcend any particular economic value. – Brian Rosenberg

 There is a false dichotomy between a liberal education and a pragmatic education. Liberal education is often viewed as a luxury. This characterization runs the risk of enhancing inequity by perpetuating what Jefferson referred to as an unnatural aristocracy. — Lynn Pasquerella

In regard to the biggest misconceptions of academics, the two responses that stood out for the participants were these:

Faculty members too often believe that their responsibility is limited to their specific disciplines and not also to the overall educational purposes of the institutions they serve and the broader needs of their students. Also, too few have a good grasp of how their institutions are actually financed and where the major costs are incurred. — Judith Shapiro

 That higher education will continue to survive in something like its current form for the next 50 years and longer. — Richard Grusin

As a group, we talked about the causes of these misconceptions and what faculty, administrators, and other higher education advocates could do about them. Given the very active participation of so many seminar members and our time constraints, we just barely scratched the surface in regard to solutions. However, participants clearly were engaged and energized by the conversation, and so were we.

For the next three weeks, we will be publishing pieces that reflect 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.

By Eric Bain-Selbo & Katherine Jo
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.
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.
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