Harold T. Shapiro, former president of Princeton University, has written a thought provoking book on the changing role of higher education in American life. He addresses the missions of public and private universities, not only in educating young people, but also in serving the needs of a global society.
Shapiro, whose new book is titled "A Larger Sense of Purpose: Non Nobis Solum," appears at the Princeton University Store on Thursday, June 1, at 7 p.m.
Here is an excerpt from his book:
It is hardly surprising that Western higher education has transformed itself and its relationship to society a number of times over the last millennium, given that society’s view of itself has also been transformed many times during this same period. A crisis in education is usually caused by a crisis in society that calls into question many existing ideas regarding the central issues of knowledge, culture, and society. The crisis fuels meaningful educational debates and propels changes in educational institutions such as universities.
In a rapidly changing world, the social role and form of the university and its programs exist in an almost perpetual state of transition facing constant challenges of leadership and adaptability. For example, the future role of the university will depend, in part, on the particular shape taken by our evolving liberal democracy. Will democracy evolve by focusing its efforts on individual choice and open access, or on the direct provision of economic and social benefits of one kind or another?
Alternatively, will our politics focus on trying to find a new position of political equipoise between group and individual rights? Or will the evolving policies of our government focus on the new moral, social, economic, and political issues that globalization is now putting before us? Clearly, many other foci and/or combinations of foci are possible within a broadly liberal democratic form of government. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the notion that scientific progress will bring progress in other dimensions of the human endeavor such as ethics and political arrangements has any lasting vitality.
In contemporary times, a university education is almost a requirement of a fully expressed citizenship. The university is an essential supplier of products and services on which the society is highly dependent, such as advanced training, expertise of various types, and new ideas. However, the capacity of the university as we know it to maintain such a central role will always remain uncertain and depends on the university’s adaptability, its capacity for leadership, and the evolving nature of other key cultural and political ideas and institutions.
The difficulty is that change and adaptation inevitably bring in their wake anxiety, loss, and controversy. Meaningful change generates not only winners and losers, but also a reconfiguration of the values and commitments of the university. There are always constituencies, internal and external, that think that the existing configuration is optimal. Thus, even thoughtful change creates controversy. It always requires courage and commitment from within the university leadership, whether at a department, a school, or a university. At the same time, errors are certain when selecting new paths, and leaders need both the courage to take risks and the wisdom to identify when a mistake has been made. Making the right choices in higher education is something like trying to understand which aspects of avant garde art are simply different and transitory, and which aspects represent a more permanent addition to our cultural patrimony.
I recall with mixed feeling two initiatives, one at Princeton and one at Michigan. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, as Michigan’s manufacturing sector faltered (after the "second energy shock"), the state of Michigan and the University of Michigan faced a serious financial crisis. At the University of Michigan we developed a response to this situation that could be loosely characterized as "smaller but better." The idea was that, given external circumstances, the only way we could continue to enhance the quality of our programs was to have fewer of them. This involved both dropping our commitments to some perfectly reasonable and worthy activities and increasing our commitments to others.
Although the general strategy was widely accepted in principle, it was extremely difficult to implement because few members of our community thought that they would be personally affected. When particular decisions were made there was fierce resistance among those negatively affected and little support from the strategy’s beneficiaries. In time, however, this approach was widely appreciated by most, but on a personal level it would have been much easier for leadership at all levels to simply let the average quality of our programs slowly diminish.
At Princeton in the early 1990s I began to think that, in order to sustain the quality of the undergraduate experience, we should increase the number of undergraduates from abroad. The reasons: increased globalization and the fact that many Princeton students had their first postgraduation experience abroad. Increasing the number of students from abroad would, in our judgment, improve the undergraduate experience for all our students. The vehicle we chose to accomplish this was to continue our competitive admissions process but fully open our financial aid program to students from abroad. Harvard had had such a practice for many years. The idea was immediately popular with our faculty and students, but because we were about to launch a capital campaign I went around the country explaining the idea to our alumni.
The reaction was bimodal. Some thought such an initiative self-evident and overdue and offered to help by providing new endowments for the purpose. Others, however, became outraged, arguing that too many deserving American students might be deprived or that we could not get reliable financial information for our need-based financial aid program. The debate quickly became polarized. We decided, therefore, to approach our new objective in steps and see what happened. In the end, our alumni widely accepted the program but not before considerable acrimony and accusations of various sorts passed under the bridge.
At its best the contemporary American research university is a much more audacious idea than the Colonial college. It is a place where learning, knowledge, skills, and traditions are preserved, revamped, and transmitted; where new ideas, scholars, and teachers are born; and where interests and cultural commitments of all kinds meet and inform one another. From a more historical perspective, it is a place where the achievements, hopes, and interests of our recovered past meet and interact with those of the present as we shape our cultural traditions for the future. The contemporary research university, therefore, can also he thought of as holding a continuing conversation with both past and future generations regarding those matters that are truly significant.
In prosaic terms the three principal tasks of the university are the preservation, transmission, and advancement of knowledge. These tasks and the freedom to interpret what they mean, however, are always in transition. At times the university’s social role has been to serve as a bastion of the status quo and a defender of the interests and values of those currently in power.
For the foreseeable future, existing colleges and universities will be faced with the challenge of sustaining society’s most important values, demonstrating sufficient adaptability to fill new or modified roles, and exerting sufficient leadership to help society shape new cultural commitments and expand others. Although this portfolio of responsibilities represents a significant challenge for faculty, administrators, and trustees, a great deal is at stake, namely, the continued social relevance of institutions of higher education. If such leadership should falter, it would not be the first time that a significant social institution was replaced, in whole or in part, by other institutions better able to articulate and meet society’s evolving needs.
Will the current American research university have the will and the courage to respond as thoughtfully to the changes that are surely ahead of us? Within universities the forces protecting the status quo are always strong and ready with a portfolio of reasons why change is too risky. The more distinguished the university, the stronger these forces. However, in a society such as ours, sustained distinction requires a sustained commitment to change.
Typically, in a liberal democracy different groups in society have quite diverse educational objectives. These different objectives are a critical reflection of our pluralistic and rapidly changing community, but our society cannot support a range of institutions as wide as our varied preferences. Conflicts between satisfying individual needs and the fulfillment of social obligations are inevitable. A liberal society is always in the process of locating the precarious balance between protecting individual freedom and ensuring sufficient solidarity . . .
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that there is ongoing controversy regarding the appropriate shape of the curricula and scholarly commitments of the institutions of higher education. Nor is it astonishing that these controversies are most heated in societies, such as ours, characterized by rapid change and a rapidly accumulating knowledge base, in which higher education has become almost a requirement to be eligible for a full set of opportunities.