From the Director: Advancing the Greater Purposes of Higher Education

By Don Harward, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice and President Emeritus, Bates College

Two years ago in this Director’s column, I offered my perspective on the nature of change in higher education and the supportive role that Bringing Theory to Practice offers to colleges and universities.

That perspective used the metaphor of how a disturbance, an energy source, generates and propagates waves—the image of the pebble disturbing the pool; the gravitational pull on tidal waves; the earthquake energy resulting in the Tsunami. The essay contended that, “Change in higher education would be valued [even achieved] were it repeated like ripples or waves throughout all of the institution’s surfaces.” Moreover, if the energy source were to actually generate waves of change in the institution, it would have to affect the width and multiple layers of the campus culture—“all its surfaces”—and must have sprung from the resources of the campus—its history, people and culture—and most certainly from what that institution understands as its purpose—both as an individual institution and as a part of the enterprise of higher education.

So for any institution addressing change, there is the consideration of its full promise or greater purpose—and how, or whether, any ripples or waves of change, even if broad and deep at that institution, will realize it?

For us at BTtoP, these two themes—(1) campus change must be sourced internally in order to generate “waves” of influence; and (2) the objective of that change is for the institution (and there-by, for higher education) to realize its full and greater purposes—are connected!

Supporting that connection is at the heart of our work. We have extended more than 500 grants to over 300 colleges and universities of all types as they initiate ways to realize one or more dimensions of their greater purpose: providing opportunities for deep and profound learning and discovery; instilling a valued connection to civic engagement; providing necessary preparation for meaningful life choices, including work; and engendering the full manifestation and facilitation of opportunities attending to the well-being of its constituents.

The waves of change that a campus generates have measurable strengths and affects. On many campuses, the energy builds an ascendant and pervasive set of waves—and those changes are retained in the campus culture. But on too many others, an initial wave comes to a calm and ripple-less end.

From the hundreds of reports from our grant recipients, the factors influencing whether a wave builds or dissipates are many. However, what we learn from those grant reports is the importance of a collective strategy from without that could effectively reinforce a campus’s internally spawned change—a strategy that would augment and further an institution or organization’s wave action, that reinforce it, extend, and confirm it, and even vitalize it.

We believe that such a strategy will be found in bringing together a “community” of practices and practitioners committed in their own work to realizing higher education’s greater purposes. We are confident that building and enabling such a supportive community may be, for many, the necessary condition for campus change to persist.

Much of the work of BTtoP has been building toward a community of practice—partially generated by case studies, by gathering those who have initiated projects, and by gathering scholars and practitioners contributing to BTtoP publications. We have not, however, been explicit and intentional in crafting and advancing a well-defined community of practice and practitioners. We intend to do so.

Moving forward, BTtoP is committing to advancing such a collective strategy—one that involves current colleagues and friends and invites new ones. We intend to both advocate for and support actions in the interest of advancing the greater purposes of higher education, providing a community for the cultivation among participants of the strength and effectiveness of their own individual voices, as well as serving as a transformer—upping the energy for actually supporting change.

We will be using the first half of this year to develop more structure around this idea, and to begin to gather such a community of participants. We hope that you will join us—for we will gain from your insights regarding what could follow from a chorus of legitimizing voices reinforcing and amplifying the waves of change on any campus.