Why Colleges Should Not Drift from Their Original Mission

In forty years of teaching and leading university students, I’ve seen the college campus evolve in a tangible way. I love some of what’s happened… but mourn other changes. Many schools that were once incubators of inquiry and critical thinking — willing to debate any and all ideas — have now become places of emotion over intellect.

Often, the faculty can do little about it.

Judge Jose Cabranes, who served as Yale’s first general counsel, put it this way, “American higher education seems to be in a permanent state of crisis. Almost monthly, a federal court has occasion to reprimand some college or university for improperly chilling speech, even as some students continue to complain that campuses are too friendly to the wrong kind of speakers. Many institutions have cut back on faculty hiring, even as the cost of tuition grows.”

So, what’s going on and why?

The Good News and Bad News

I love the fact that social justice, activism, and leadership have taken central roles for students today. In 1986, The Leadership Task Force identified 182 college leadership programs in the U.S. By 2011, they identified well over 1,000 such programs. I am grateful. I believe higher education institutions should be in the business of developing thoughtful leaders who can take their place in many industries, including education. It seems leadership is in vogue. In fact, university admission counselors often look at extra-curricular activities as much as grade point average. Many colleges look for entrepreneurial activity and leadership experience from high school seniors.

What is sad to me, is that in our move toward social activism, colleges have become places of deep emotion, at times, instead of logic. I think both should be included, but we cannot scrap logic because we feel deeply emotional about something.

I am sure you’ve heard about the cry from students for “safe spaces” away from speeches and ideas that run counter to theirs or to what is popular. The traditional governors of the university — the faculty — are often on the sidelines, replaced by vocal staff and appeasing administrators wanting to placate their customers.

In 2015, Yale University students complained that some Halloween costumes were not sensitive enough to other students from different backgrounds. When instructor Erika Christakis sent an email saying that students needed to relax and not rely on college administrators to resolve the issue, but instead insist on their rights to decide what is appropriate for a costume, student protest grew into ridiculous levels of emotion.

Other universities, mostly private schools, have told tales of students requesting “trigger warnings” for certain topics that could prompt negative emotions. Several colleges have experienced extemporaneous debates on “micro-aggressions,” where a faculty member or a fellow student might say something that feels confrontational or combative.

Then and Now

I distinctly remember two offensive encounters during my college days, over forty years ago. On one occasion, a group of guys in my residence hall dressed in an inappropriate way and raced through the halls screaming messages they had no business screaming. To my knowledge, no one approached the administration. Quite the opposite, three of us sat down with these guys; acknowledged they were having fun and then discussed a better approach for their goal. It worked. On another occasion, a couple of students acted out at a university basketball game in a way that would’ve prompted student outcries for safe spaces on campus today. When I looked into it, I realized the students were just having fun and only needed encouragement to chill a bit. It worked.

Nobody agreed with these episodes, but no one catastrophized them either. Today, it seems like students (who are 18 and older by the way) need someone to step in and help them know how to navigate a hardship or an adverse encounter. Emotion now rules, instead of knowledge and common sense, at least outside the classroom.

“At one time, not so long ago, it was obvious that colleges and universities were the embodiment of this distinction, dedicated above all to serious reflection,” says Judge Jose Cabranes. “Their purpose was to instruct students in methods and habits of free inquiry. It was equally clear what universities were not. They were not places to absorb and enforce ‘correct’ answers to our unsettled social, cultural, moral, or economic debates.”

Balancing Leadership and Scholarship

Please understand, I agree that specific issues like white supremacy or racial prejudice are not up for debate, and institutions should continue to make this clear. My concern is — if we don’t continue empowering schools to be places for open debate and, yes, even heated debate over ideas, we squander their original purpose. I believe it is out of good scholarship (inquiry and debate) that we produce good leadership.

The Role of Scholarship The Role of Leadership
Research ideas for legitimacy Apply the best ideas to society
Inquire and dispute issues Decide issues to be discarded/embraced
Critical thinking Turn reflection into practice
Model civil discourse and debate Model excellent strategy for the public
Thinking and conclusions Translating and application
Intellectual engagement Passionate influence

Judge Cabranes continues, “Indeed, non-faculty administrators and activists are driving some of the most dangerous developments in university life, including the erosion of the due-process rights of faculty and students, efforts to regulate the ‘permissible limits’ of classroom discussion, and the condemnation of unwelcome ideas as ‘hate speech.’”

Instead of being havens for “free inquiry” and learning, they have morphed into places where students frequently fail to learn critical thinking. Instead of being rational we are merely emotional. I say — let’s return our campuses to places where students are adults and are free to inquire and debate.


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Why Colleges Should Not Drift from Their Original Mission