Indispensable Institutions

By Richard Ekman

As I write, CIC is in its sixth week of work from remote locations and, I’m proud to say, is fully functional and productive.

Naturally, we miss the camaraderie and ease of discussing professional matters that simultaneous presence in the office, established patterns of meetings, and both formal procedures and informal customs allow. I’m certain that the large number of presidents, faculty members, and staff now working remotely from campus feel the same. Through this experience, all of higher education is gaining renewed appreciation for the value of the patterns of our worklife and of the institutions that frame our lives as a community and add functionality and order to our work.

This awareness should remind us of the danger of the anti-institutional outlook that has increased among Americans in recent years. It is now common to hear Americans disparage established businesses, governmental agencies, colleges and universities, religious organizations, and utilities such as cable companies.

Perhaps some saw this shift in sentiment coming as it grew over several decades, but as a society we did not address it. Institutions, it must be acknowledged, have often ignored their critics and thereby lost much of the public’s trust. Businesses that put the interests of shareholders over those of customers, along with government offices that take too long to address a problem or require many bureaucratic hurdles before providing service, are in the headlines almost daily. Colleges and universities have not been immune: The recent “Varsity Blues” athletics/admissions scandal has adversely influenced the work of all development and admissions officers in higher education. The perception of our core academic purposes continues to be distorted by emboldened donors and public officials.

Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally offers a brilliant discussion of the meaning of being part of an institution. Research universities already know well the tension between a faculty member’s loyalty to a scholarly discipline and his or her role as a leader and defender of the university or college that employs him or her. In the business sector, support for start-ups and underdogs is stronger than support for the well established. And to the surprise of conservatives, liberals, and progressives, the American social compact that for years warned against expanded governmental activity if a nongovernmental solution to a problem was available has given way to support for a bigger role for government. The issue is no longer usually thought of as public versus private ways of addressing society’s needs, but rather as making all of our institutions more effective.

In this moment of “social distancing,” we see what losing access to deeper structures and institutional resources might mean. One hopes that the current crisis brings new determination to strengthen all our national institutions and especially our institutions of higher education. With hindsight, we in higher education should have responded long ago. My hope is that the shock of recent events will lead Americans to renewed determination to repair our institutions—both in the public’s perception and in fresh institutional commitment to core academic values. For CIC colleges, our stated values of access, student success, and intellectual integrity must guide decisions of every kind, especially in tumultuous and uncertain times.

Other educational sectors also can take steps that will simultaneously address public criticism and strengthen institutions. The leading business schools, for example, could emphasize the preparation of graduates who wish to lead companies for the long term, manufacture a better product, or provide a valued service—as opposed to encouraging careers in short-term consulting or advocating that business leadership involves the quick maximization of profits followed by the sale of a company. Federal agencies could double-down on streamlining procedures, reducing costs, and eliminating the self-dealing that we have seen in DC in recent years.

Changing the public narrative about higher education, as CIC’s Talking about Private Colleges: Busting the Myths workshops are attempting to do, is a herculean task, but essential. Highly successful workshops at Hood College (MD), Bay Path University (MA), Wofford College (SC), and University of Puget Sound (WA) have revealed the appetite among mid-level administrators, faculty leaders, and trustees—people who are influential in their communities—for assistance in making the case. Armed with useful trend data and succinct ways to answer the questions that neighbors often raise, the approximately 250,000 people employed by CIC member colleges and universities can persuade neighbors to see why small, private educational institutions are essential. Workshop-goers took away new confidence that they were better prepared for the conversations that arise unexpectedly when, for example, the father of their daughter’s friend, learning that they work for a college, asks: “Why does college cost so much?” More workshops will take place in 2020–2021 in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and other locations. Naturally, the content of these workshops is updated regularly to acknowledge that events such as coronavirus or the Varsity Blues scandal raise new questions that require strong responses.

Now—when private colleges and universities are incurring large, unexpected expenses and anticipate sharp decreases in revenue—is the time to remember that all institutions are fragile and depend on people to sustain them. A college today is much more than “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other” (as James Garfield reportedly once said). But a college is not a monolith that can withstand an infinite barrage of assaults.

The remedy lies in not giving up. Our nation needs to sustain its institutions so they can serve America in the future. Higher education, which is society’s means of drawing on the wisdom of the past in order to prepare Americans for the future, has a special mandate to safeguard social, intellectual, and cultural continuity. Small independent colleges, that uniquely American form of higher education, with their proven records of quick adaptation to dramatically changing circumstances and superior performance in the rates of degree completion in critical fields such as STEM, have a solemn duty to continue their work.

Colleges and universities are the vehicles by which an undeveloped, chaotic, or disrupted, civilization builds or rebuilds. In the days that will someday follow the end of the coronavirus’s disruption, it will be higher education’s capabilities of reliable research and effective teaching that will offer the best guideposts to re-building our economy and fixing the flaws that were revealed in our government’s functioning. In order for that to happen, we must protect higher education’s surprisingly fragile institutions now. Private colleges and universities especially will be critical if America’s future is to be secured.