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Education for the Public Good


Much of the American public has become skeptical of higher education or even outright hostile to colleges and universities—for reasons ranging from higher tuition bills, especially at public institutions, to the perception that campuses are hotbeds of political ideology and intolerant of free speech. Indeed, from the moment he was selected, in his installation address last October, and in many of his public appearances since, President Lawrence S. Bacow has made addressing such concerns a signal theme of his leadership of the University, as he works to change a discourse he sees as threatening the country’s well-being. In fact, the one specific proposal in Bacow’s inaugural speech aimed at making explicit the connection between higher education and service to the public:

We need to ensure that future generations continue to serve the greater good in a variety of ways. Every Harvard graduate, in every profession, should be an active, enlightened, and engaged citizen. So I am pleased to announce today we will work towards raising the resources, so we can guarantee every undergraduate who wants one, a public-service internship of some kind—an opportunity to see the world more expansively, and to discover their own powers to repair that world.

So it was timely and pertinent for the second Harvard Summit on Excellence in Higher Education, planned during the last year and convened April 4-5 at Loeb House, to focus on “exploring our contributions to the public good.” Like the first summit (held in the fall of 2017, and focused more internally, on diversity and academic inclusion on campuses), the second one brought to Cambridge representatives from a score or so colleges and universities (largely private, highly selective institutions, but also including a few public flagships and others) and associated figures.

Addressing the summit subject, the presentations and discussions alternated between external measures (enabling students, particularly, to engage with the public, and communicating schools’ educational and research mission more effectively) and internal ones (aimed at enhancing schools’ effectiveness as educational institutions). Particularly striking were the examples of teaching that brings students into contact with real-world challenges that excite them and stimulate their learning, or that, at least prospectively, extend the universe of people whom skilled faculties can educate.

Highlights follow.

“We need to get this right”

Bacow, as keynote speaker, addressed “Truth, Excellence, and Opportunity: Restoring Public Confidence in American Higher Education.” He observed that most people seemed to be supportive of local, community colleges and universities, and of their own alma maters, but to hate higher education as a whole. Even though American higher education remains the envy of the rest of the world, he said, it is being held responsible, domestically, for all the things that seem to be going wrong in society today. In reviewing “how we wound up here” and what to do about it, he said, the summit participants were engaging in “a conversation we need to keep having collectively.”

He then reprised many of the themes he has been sounding since February 2018, and indeed well before he was named Harvard president. The first complaint about higher education, he said, is, “It’s too damn expensive,” for reasons he has researched—most prominently, that “all the pressure is to do more” in terms of adding courses of study, extracurricular activities, and student supports. In response, he said, leaders “need to think hard about how we frame choices,” so constituents understand, for example, that funding three more clubs would have to come at the cost of removing financial aid from three students.

Second is the impression that members of academic communities are “far more interested in making ourselves great than making the world better”—a punishing perception in a world that is increasingly anti-elite. There is some truth to the fear that “higher education today is less the driving force behind economic and social mobility than it used to be in our country,” Bacow said. In candor, he continued, “We need to look at ourselves in the mirror,” to engage with members of society who never come to campus, and to demonstrate the real value of what colleges and universities do—in part by being willing to “partner with other institutions that look very different from our own,” like the community colleges and public institutions that account for most of the enrollment in American higher education.

Finally, there is the criticism that campuses are not nearly as open to ideas across the political spectrum, and as supportive of free speech, as they claim to be. Although some of these critiques are too broad-brush, Bacow said, faculties and student bodies do tend to be liberal politically, and colleges and universities have to work exceptionally hard to ensure that campuses are open to expression and discussion across the ideological spectrum. As he put it, “I never learn anything when I listen to myself speak.”

Connecting with the public, he emphasized, is “incredibly important.” Given the role of higher education in securing opportunity for the next generation, Bacow said, “We need to get this right.” In subsequent discussion, he was equally emphatic that the elite, endowed, selective institutions have to be supportive of the public institutions, whose role as educators is huge and whose resources have been squeezed particularly hard since state budgets were stressed by the Great Recession.

During a panel presentation on “Universities in the Public Good,” Holden Thorp (former chancellor of the University of North Carolina, a public flagship, and now provost at Washington University, the distinguished private research institution) addressed head-on the underlying challenge identified in the second of Bacow’s points. Thorp, coauthor of Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between American and Its Colleges and Universities (2018), highlighted the “extraordinary disconnect” between the account higher-education institutions give of themselves to the public, and their internal self-understanding.

Harvard, he noted, came into being in 1636 because the Puritan government sought a training school for religious leaders to tend to the souls of colonists and Native Americans: a clearly instrumental purpose, echoed today in claims that academic research leads the way in curing disease, providing for the national defense, and innovating for future economic growth. But faculty members, he says, frequently say that they “don’t understand why we are making this neoliberal, instrumentalist case” for their own work—which they perceive in terms of producing knowledge for its own sake, pursuing the beauty of new understandings, and, perhaps, educating the future citizenry, in general terms.

In a world of “perfect information,” he said, these simultaneous, but competing, narratives could no longer exist separately. External constituencies, he said, would have to be told that tenure and academic freedom—the very attributes they understand and support the least—were fundamental to underpinning the tangible outcomes they sought from higher education. And faculty members would have to be told that life within the university comes with obligations (rarely discussed when CVs are vetted and scholars are appointed to professorships)—the “promises to the public about all the things we’re going to do for them.” Unless those understandings are brought together in a candid, coherent whole, he said, critical politicians would “weaponize” tenure and other features that otherwise seem inexplicable to citizens increasingly worried about their own increasingly insecure jobs.

Turning to education’s internal workings, Wellesley president Paula Johnson talked about her school’s “curriculum of connection”—aiming both to help diverse students bridge and learn from their own differences, and to encourage faculty members to expand their perspectives beyond their departmental silos. She felt that younger professors were particularly eager to do so (a point echoed in a subsequent presentation by a Swarthmore statistics professor; see below—a hint of the ways that new approaches to teaching and learning might yield both more effective education and previously unrealized public benefits).

Harvard Graduate School of Education dean Bridget Terry Long, a specialist in access to higher education, broadened that theme. She especially emphasized the importance of improving outcomes: only half of enrolled students earn a higher-education degree within six years, she noted. “Higher education for many students has not been the American Dream,” she said. “In fact it is the burden you carry with you for the rest of your life” for students who fail to earn a degree and are saddled with student-loan debt.

Again, she pointed to enhancements within education: redefining financial aid so it is simpler and works better for those who need it; engaging in academic preparation for K-12 students (see the Yale humanities example below); and partnering with institutions such as community colleges. Within her own school, she said, faculty members’ research could enhance education broadly, not only by critiquing the many things that are not working, but also identifying and “shining a light on” those that do.

The summit—organized by Profzheimer professor of teaching and learning Richard J. Light, Menschel faculty director of the Bok Center Robert A. Lue, Bok Center executive director Tamara Brenner, and their colleagues—wrapped up its first afternoon by modeling engaged, interactive learning. Bok Center specialists Adam Beaver and Pamela Pollock led participants in an exercise in trying to define what the public good is in a higher-education perspective, responding to definitional prompts such as “modeling a diverse and inclusive community” or “cultivating the inner lives of individuals.” As noted, most of the summit participants were from private and selective institutions; one could well imagine that a representative from a vocationally focused institution or community college might focus on the “facilitating socioeconomic mobility” definition, while another, from a religious or spiritually affiliated institution, might gravitate to one that is explicitly about service.

During a dinner address, Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana put its mission in the context of plummeting confidence in government and the public sector, and the perception that efforts to make higher education meritocratic had devolved into a “testocracy” that confers “advantage on those schooled to excel.” The College, he said, is working hard, in the spirit of Bacow’s inaugural emphasis on public service, to develop new channels for students to engage in that work, extracurricularly and in the classroom.

Looking beyond the four (or six) years of higher education, the second dinner speaker, Michelle Weise, senior vice president of Strada Education Network, spoke on the bracing topic of “The Role of the Liberal Arts in a 100-year Work Life.” Her research, she said, pointed to the need both to develop the skills and habits of mind associated with liberal-arts education, and, repeatedly, skills needed to flourish in specific, rapidly changing occupations. She perceived higher education as a “both/and” proposition, involving scientific and humanistic learning, and liberal arts and vocational skills—and importantly, lasting throughout an increasingly extended period of lifelong work and learning: an extensionof the mission of higher education vastly beyond its current limited term.

“Engaging communities that feel disaffected”

The problem-setting contents of the summit’s first day turned toward specific solutions during the second gathering. Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard E. Gardner outlined the preliminary findings of a seven-year study of 10 college campuses, reviewing the kinds of students now enrolled, their concerns as they pursue their education, and what those conditions might suggest about how to engage them more with both their academic work and their surrounding communities. (A detailed report on Gardner’s research, titled “Campuses’ Culture,” will appear in the May-June Harvard Magazine, now in production.)

Based on interviews with 1,000 students, Gardner said, civic concerns are largely absent from their own accounts of what they are about. When they mention terms like “help” or “helping,” the students typically are discussing support they want to have provided to them, rather than an externally oriented mission to help others. Their principal preoccupations are with their own lives and well-being, particularly their own and their peers’ mental health, and their sense of belonging to their campus and social community.

Any efforts to raise students’ sights, he continued, ought to pay attention to:

  • onboarding, by which he means conveying a sense of the school’s mission (principally educational and academic), beginning from the time they are admitted; and
  • intertwining, meaning the close interrelationship between the principal academic mission and one other mission (such as community service)—the maximum number he thinks most such institutions can successfully manage.

His architecture resonated in the suggestions of the president of Olin College of Engineering (see below).

Three vivid examples of educational effectiveness, intertwined in various ways with a mission or method that extends beyond the ivy-covered halls, arose in faculty members’ case studies from their disciplines.

Caroline Levander, vice president for global and digital strategy at Rice University, where she is Carlson professor in the humanities and professor in English, explained how her STEM-focused institution has found ways to meld liberal-arts education with the public good. Rice, she noted, is very much embedded in Houston, the de facto energy capital of the country, and the campus is adjacent to the enormous Texas Medical Center complex. Undergraduate programs in energy and environmental humanities and in medical humanities—each grounded in an introductory course, practicums, and field research—have yielded outstanding student work on, for example, largely abandoned neighborhoods set aside to absorb storm surges from hurricanes, but still inhabited by overlooked, at-risk remnant populations, and a documentary on the disappearance of a small glacier in warming Iceland.

Lynne Steuerle Schofield
Photograph by Michael Oliveri

At Swarthmore, one of the elite colleges that could be said to have a service mission stemming from its Quaker origins, Lynne Steuerle Schofield, associate professor of statistics (and associate provost for faculty diversity and development), described a sort of natural experiment. As one of those young, engaged faculty members whom Wellesley’s president had mentioned, Schofield talked about her desire to engage in civic work, and her inability to do so given her teaching, administrative, scholarly, and parental responsibilities.

She now teaches a traditional, introductory statistics course, and a separate “community-based learning” equivalent, in which the students are paired with a civic organization that has challenges and data, but doesn’t know how to analyze or make use of them to apply to its needs. In that iteration of the course, Schofield reported, students have to assume much more responsibility for learning about what they need to learn (what data are available, how messy they are, what problems they could be used to solve, and how)—work she found herself doing for the students in the traditional course. In their immersions with a food bank, an asthma-management program, a homeless program, and others, the students, most of them new to college-level statistics, found themselves more engaged; much better equipped to take on other interdisciplinary studies; but at the same time much more challenged (not least because they have to do much more writing, and have to make oral presentations to their clients).

“You are making a contract” with the client organization, and its clients, she said, and so the students cannot miss a class, skip an assignment, or otherwise mess up. Moreover, the students learn to hear their clients’ questions, and to respond to them, rather than, say, idly defining their work in terms of their own general interest in learning about public health or poverty. And they learn directly, not abstractly, about the ethics of handling data confidentially and about other critical research concerns.

The course, Schofield reported, “allows me to serve the public” in various ways she could not otherwise do, and to model that kind of engaged behavior for her students. For teacher and students alike, that kind of “serving the public good” emerges naturally from the academic work of learning statistical skills (Gardner’s intertwining), apart from any direct engagement they might have as citizen volunteers. The result is “engaging communities that feel disconnected” while educating students better.

Bryan Garsten
Photograph by Michael Oliveri

Bryan Garsten, professor of political science and the humanities and chair of the humanities program at Yale (and the author of Yale NUS’s innovative liberal-arts curriculum), described a different kind of community engagement—and its startling effect on his own teaching. Having engaged in global outreach in Singapore, he said, he began to wonder about opportunities to extend humanistic learning closer to home. Inspired by a high-school summer program pioneered by Roosevelt Montás, director of Columbia’s core curriculum, Garsten and a graduate student arranged for New Haven teachers and librarians to nominate thoughtful high-school students for a two-week summer residence at Yale. They sought not the “best” students, who were already ticketed for the most selective colleges and universities, but a dozen capable learners.

Housed on campus, with undergraduate mentors, the high-school students plunged into a demanding sequence of daily reading, discussion, and writing about “The City,” from classical Athens and Sparta to modern literature. For most of them, Garsten said, the campus interlude was their first time away from home. They brought to readings, like Locke’s Second Treatise, a much greater willingness to entertain radical change in society than, say, the reformist undergraduates (and successful Yale College students) embedded with them. And when he took the students to Beinecke Library, Yale’s rare-book collection, one burst into tears when she realized that the city street names reflected figures from New Haven’s history—a history she was living but had never known before.

Almost overnight, he continued, the students showed significant gains in their ability to navigate challenging material—a strong endorsement for the work of highly skilled teaching, when extended to those who have not had access to it at this level. They gained in confidence, coming to see their self-described shyness as, in fact, thoughtfulness. As they engaged with classic works of literature, he said, he came to see humanities as not merely exercises in  critical thinking (as in an academic profession), but as the work of synthesis: of “mak[ing] sense of themselves and the world” that is otherwise complicated, threatening, and fragmented.

These small student cohorts, equipped with the kind of teaching otherwise available only to the elite admitted to the most selective colleges and universities, might themselves find a way into higher education—in turn, extending its reach to the populations not now served, or ill-served in the way Dean Long had described. This work, Garsten said, is “doing what we do best.”

At lunch, Richard K. Miller reprised some of the public criticisms of higher education outlined by President Bacow. Miller is founding president of Olin College of Engineering, created as an experiment in better engineering education, but now widely regarded as a beacon for pedagogical innovation. A mechanical engineer by profession, Miller presented data from a national Gallup-Purdue study showing that alumni overwhelmingly cite mentorship and engaged, experiential learning as critical to education and subsequent success in life—and also report that almost none of them actually had such experiences as undergraduates. Noting problems like those Gardner identified (students’ concerns with belonging, and the apparent proliferation of mental-health challenges), Miller said educators ought to focus less on content and more on identity, engagement, and purpose.

To that end, he described a first-year exercise at Olin, where teams of students engage with a client’s problem. In this example, the large question was the challenge of aging in America. In interviews with 10 elderly people, the five students learned about the devastating consequences of falls and broken hips: the subsequent immobility, weight gain from inactivity, and even the difficult of getting an accurate weight when confined to a wheelchair. Returning to campus, they brainstormed a roll-on pad with pressure sensors, telemetry, and more, gathering information from any expert they could find, until they prototyped, tested, and developed a roll-on pad that can report an accurate weight to a smartphone. (The product is now on sale.)

In their interactions with real people, Miller said, the students had to be empathetic listeners. They became empowered because their learning had a sense of real purpose. And in framing the problem, learning how to solve it, and seeing their clients’ response, any tendency they may have had to focus internally and to dwell on their own need for identity and belonging (and, in turn, their own mental well-being, as in Gardner’s surveys) gave way to the opposite states of being.

The point Miller said, was that this work and its outcome were designed into the curriculum, not some add-on or extracurricular activity. Bringing it about in a new institution, at a relatively small scale, was much easier, he thought, than attempting to remake long-established schools (but the work was not easy at Olin, either, and was punctuated with failures along the way).

Could such gains be made against the “viscosity” of established departments and disciplines? Holden Thorp wondered. Miller thought so, and is working with a coalition of other universities to make such approaches to education far more widespread. The key, he said, was establishing priorities, clarifying values, and proceeding with the right people. In a way, that resonated with Gardner’s approach: clarifying an institution’s single mission, onboarding students from the time of admission, and intertwining a larger mission (but just one) with the educational work a college or university pursues.

As for the Miller’s last point, working with the right people: Olin was explicitly focused on teaching, not research, so the easiest way to visualize a way forward was to tell prospective faculty members that 20 years hence he wanted them to be remembered, above all, as the teachers whom students said had done the most to transform their lives.

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