Redefining the Role of Higher Education in a Modern American Society

Higher education is America is changing.  Every single person knows it.  The response to this change, however, is much debated and furthermore very debatable.

An interesting proposed split of the University of Wisconsin-Madison away from the University of Wisconsin System has me thinking about the changes in higher education and how a holistic answer must be researched and proposed.  The first question, in any change, in any situation, is who will benefit?  Furthermore, are those that WILL benefit necessarily those that SHOULD benefit?  And finally, does the change support the mission of the institution and further that goal?

I think, in this case, not. In fact, the mission of the University of Wisconsin-Madison clearly iterates that participation in the University of Wisconsin System is necessary to provide access to students, staff, and faculty in their desire for education and research.  Furthermore, the UW-Madison “…also seeks to attract and serve students from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds and to be sensitive and responsive to those groups which have been underserved by higher education.”  Will this split assist in providing access to those less able to reach it due to institutional bias?  Nope.

The separatist ideal is to have flexibility, manageability, and quite frankly, leisure in running an institution.  However, these are not easy times.  I call on administrators to reflect on their ability to better society through partnerships and collaboration of education.   Do not back down, do not separate yourselves from others in the name of ease.  Long-term, it will not provide you with the outcomes you desire.  The separatist ideal, unfortunately, suggests that higher education is for only those that can afford it, or those that fit into the category of “upwardly mobile.”

The other idea, the “collaboratist” ideal, is predicated on the idea that higher education is for the masses, should be supported by the general public, and therefore benefiting the public good.  This means a shared responsibility for burdens across universities (and inherently university systems).  Unfortunately, this is harder.  This means shared tax revenues across states, and not every person pays taxes equally.  Furthermore, in a time of budget crises, it may mean tax increases to manage such a burden.

So what, then, do we do?  What do we call for as taxpayers?  What do we call for as members of society?

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