Director's Column: Fifteen Years of Advancing Higher Education's Greater Purposes

Donald W. Harward, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

Recent discussions and essays have been clear as they explore themes underlying and undermining public trust in higher education, including “skepticism about the value of a college degree, belief that academe promotes values at odds with those of many Americans, and concern that our institutions are driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to improve society.”[1] The thrust of these claims is that colleges and universities should recognize that higher education’s purpose is to prepare students for the workplace by moving faculty incentives and rewards (and the value they see in being an educator) away from research and individual advancement to the ethic of serving the public’s social and economic interests.

These claims are among several other elements—including accelerating costs (which mask issues of value) and the overall anxiety and negativity regarding all societal and political institutions—that led the public to lose their trust and confidence in colleges and universities.

However, rather than weighing in on the complexity of the public’s diagnosis, I suggest we give greater attention to prescriptions for what we in higher education should actually do. What is needed, I believe, is much more than a set of patterns of change in faculty incentives and rewards for teaching. What is needed is the most robust articulation, defense, and alignment of priorities and practices that express and realize higher education’s (and the educator’s) greater and core purposes[2]—and the inextricable linkages among these purposes. If as institutions, or as educators, we attend to any one of our core purposes, we will be attending to the others. None are “not our job.” None are the work assigned to a campus silo. Realizing them, and crafting opportunities for their realization, are the responsibilities of being an educator—whether faculty or administrator, teacher, or staff.

I have often reflected on the admonitions to students from Tim Healy, the late president of Georgetown, that education is “soul-sized”—that if a college is any good, its purpose is to stretch you until you squawk, and if it doesn’t, transfer![3] Or from Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor, Benjamin Mays, who was a graduate of Bates College and president of Morehouse College, that the purpose of higher education is not to liberate you (from ignorance and prejudice), but rather that it must cultivate an environment for self-liberation—ensuring a context in which one can choose to be free. Both, for me, have provided keys to understanding purpose: the power of education and its promise to students to welcome, embrace, and support them, while also challenging them to risk doubt and celebrating their discovery—to the end not of self-satisfaction or entitlement, but to serve a general, just, and public good.

Based on my years of serving as learner and educator, and with insight and support from BTtoP cofounder Sally Engelhard Pingree and our community of colleagues, we assert that the following four central, greater, and intertwined purposes should be at the heart of any higher educational experience:

1. Learning and evidence-based discovery. Engaging students in acts of thinking critically, assessing alternatives, applying judgment, taking risks, becoming self-aware, and being conscious of the levels of understanding that can be gained—and the joys of gratification gained— in any truly open inquiry.

2. Commitment to civic purpose as part of higher education’s democratic promise. Helping students understand why respect, compassion, and engagement with difference, and the public nature of inquiry, are democratic values inherent in learning and central to the shared rights, privileges, and civic responsibilities of education.

3. Well-being, both in a sense of feelings and of Aristotle’s concept of a “life well-lived,” for students of all intersectional backgrounds. Providing opportunities and context that anticipate, cultivate, and expect individual liberation—including expressions of identity, self-realization, and aspirations (both achieved and failed), as well as the development of an integrated whole person capable of agency and flourishing.

4. Meaningful lives in the real and changing world. Preparing participants in higher education for making purposeful choices, including preparing them for shifting notions of what “work” can mean. The future of work is not clear; even in the short term, jobs now are not likely to be the jobs of tomorrow, so job preparation alone is not sufficient. Instead, students must be taught how to take warranted risks, how to prepare for rapid change, and how to think both locally and globally. These are not “soft or hard skills”—they are the consequences of linking learning, well-being, and an ethic of the civic good beyond self-interest.

The integration and mutual dependency of these core purposes require understanding them as connected—that a campus pursuing opportunities for more engaged learning connects students to the realities and practices affecting civic life and leads to their self-discovery as participants. The connections among these purposes are both theoretically based and carried out in practice, and they do not call for educators to “do more” but to realize that educating and learning means “being more.” That is education’s promise.

The public, I believe, has not dismissed the promise of higher education. Rather, we in the academy have not done well in articulating and championing its core purposes, and many of us have been complicit. The voices of our campuses, and our voices as individual educators, must insist on remaining apart from conventionality while remaining a part of the greater community. It is essential that we retain this contrarian voice as well as the role of being a local champion—our campuses must be understood as both places “away from” and places inextricably connected to ideas, people, forces, communities, and influences beyond our walls. And our individual voices as educators must be distinct, separate, informed, clear, and also intent on blending in a chorus.

We in higher education learned this lesson when we marched in Washington, DC, with Dr. King in 1963 for civil rights, with anti-war protests in the 1960s and ’70s, and with the student protests urging campuses to divest in apartheid in the 1980s. We learned new lessons from the Women’s March in 2017 and from Black Lives Matter this year. And, most recently, we learned from the marches organized by students protesting gun violence. We understand the moral imperative of education to connect values to action, theory to practice.

We in higher education can, and should, influence expectations in multiple ways—those of our selves; those of our students, their families, and their sponsors; those in the academy; and those beyond it who will support the fullness and interconnectivity of education’s purposes. Altering expectations is the most effective and lasting way to realize transformational changes to priorities and practices in our work and in our institutions.

BTtoP’s resources and leadership are directed toward altering expectations—those of ourselves and those of the hundreds of institutions and thousands of individual learners and educators attendant to BTtoP’s mission and accomplishments. It is in that light that I am delighted to welcome David Scobey as BTtoP’s next director. It is with great pride that we anticipate his voice and vision in leading BTtoP in the coming years.

With gratitude and in anticipation of our collective and continuing effort to achieve the full promise of higher education,

Donald W. Harward


[1]  Richard M. Freeland, “Recovering Our Lost Public Esteem,” Inside Higher Ed, January 22, 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/01/22/three-ways-higher-ed-lea....

[2]  Bringing Theory to Practice, “The Greater Purposes of Higher Education,” adapted from Well-Being and Higher Education: A Strategy for Change and the Realization of Education's Greater Purposes (Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice, 2016), https://www.bttop.org/sites/default/files/public/The%20Greater%20Purpose....

[3]  Tim Healy, personal communications to author.