Feature: BTtoP Well-Being and Higher Education Seminar, November 2014

One of many insights we gained from the BTtoP Well-Being and Higher Education Seminar last fall was the importance of the clarity and simplicity of our narrative—the basic story we tell—even as we recognized that narratives do have to be nuanced to present essentially the same story to different audiences in different ways.

Contributions to BTtoP’s story came from almost all of the sixty attendees at the seminar—presidents, foundation leaders, faculty, student affairs leaders, scholars, and activists. Many applauded the story line, but they also reminded us that it will be heard differently by various audiences. How will a new majority student interpret this narrative? Or a current campus administrator concerned with cost savings?

Below, we share some of the major themes of the seminar, and words from some of those whose spirited involvement moved us forward.

“[T]he time is ripe for Bringing Theory to Practice to understand its considerable achievement and imagine its future possibilities within a larger movement…to bring [the fuller] aim of higher education to public consciousness… [T]here has never been a greater need for developing a movement dedicated to bringing back what [BTtoP] has called the exiled aims of liberal learning. Students need this. Educators need this. And perhaps most of all, the American democracy needs this.

—William Sullivan, coauthor of Habits of the Heart, BTtoP Planning Seminar, November 6, 2014

For some, raising up attention to well-being as a core purpose of higher education will mean a return to a long-neglected but once primary aim; for others, it will mean a reimagining. But for many, it will mean a discovery of evidence that confirms that the expectation of engagement in learning, and a campus culture that encourages, values, and supports such engagement, brings with it greater manifestations of the well-being of participants, such as identity formation, persistence, purposefulness—in a word, flourishing (eudaemonic happiness). These outcomes are not soft and unclear, but have evidentiary bases and determinable outcomes, and they should be measured in both the near and long term.

Attendees posed questions regarding the complex meanings of well-being and how to provide helpful analyses. We focused on well-being as a construct—but one that can be analyzed. It can be “parsed.” As a state of being, it can be understood developmentally, as well as dynamically. Manifestations of well-being can be documented and the conditions that maximize or facilitate their expression can be understood and acted upon.

“In one sense, [well-being] is a state in the present (I am happy, fit, flourishing, etc.), but it is also about change over time. Partly it is future—preparedness and ability to plan for change, hopefully positive, but also weather adversity and take risks. It also goes back into the past, by continually deepening one’s understanding of the journey taken, including one’s history of growth as well as loss and pain, which integrate with present identity. Well-being is a process of change as much as a condition. I would view it dynamically and longitudinally.”

—David Kahn, clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry, Columbia University, BTtoP Planning Seminar, November 6, 2014

However parsed, the context is formative. In order to raise up well-being as a core purpose, we must understand it in ways that recognize attention to differences in class and culture. The demographics of a new majority of undergraduate students are very different from those of the “traditional” students for whom most current engagement experiences were originally designed. What actually facilitates well-being will have to be rethought. Moreover, fostering a greater sense of well-being and agency will require including all involved in the solving of real problems, and doing so within a supportive campus culture. Despite their cynicism about the ineffectiveness of political structures and who holds power, students do want to make a difference. What should the narrative be regarding involvement in real problems and students’ agency to address them? And on our campuses, what is the reality of engagement, even when the message is that engagement is a key to learning and to flourishing? Engagement must be rewarded and valued. In policy and practice, each institution’s commitment beyond self-interest to the common good must be recognized, as it motivates its constituents.

This narrative can become so complex a story that it could lose its effectiveness. We welcome your thoughts on how to emphasize or clarify various parts of this story.

As BTtoP advances from raising attention to well-being, to crafting and implementing a strategy for change via the collective creation of a compelling case, we will engage in the following strategies:

  • confirm well-being as among the core purposes of higher education and emphasize consequences of engagement and a campus culture that supports and expects engagement; and
  • collaborate with campuses, associations and foundations to craft a compelling, evidence-based case that, if promulgated and acted upon, will help to change the conversations regarding higher education’s full purpose and promise.

We anticipate that changing those conversations will affect the expectations of all relevant constituencies—students, their families, faculty and administrators, boards, and the public—with resultant changes to institutional policy, practices, and priorities. And making those changes, higher education will be responding to internal and external criticisms of its diminishing value. The result should be greater public support for its full purposes and its unique and sustaining role in an open and diverse democratic society.

Thank you for any suggestions you may have, as this narrative shapes the BTtoP agenda for 2015-2017.

The BTtoP Project