The oppression of a stagnant University culture

The University has forgotten its activist role in service of the public good.

by Trent M. Kays

The goal of a university is a hotly debated subject. Educators, politicians and pundits seem to never agree on what exactly the purpose of a university is, especially when it comes to producing competent and engaged members of society. Unfortunately, the only organization that can truly implement a change is the very institution that often is the cause for the ill-informed public.
The culture of the university is one of mediocrity. It is a culture of mediocrity in that the university as an institution in the U.S. is ill-prepared and permeated with weakness when it comes to defending against the critics of its mission. How much longer will higher education allow politicians, pundits and an uninformed public to hurl charges of uselessness at it?
The point of a university is to teach and research for the public good. This is especially true at land grant institutions. The purpose and goal of a university should be to uplift those in dire economic circumstances, shatter the classism of society, inform the public and work toward the common good of a society as a whole. ItâÄôs harmful and irresponsible for a university to not strive for those goals.
Certainly, universities have been known to be a hotbed for activism. They have been known to produce student activists, but are they enough now? Is it enough to have mostly lethargic faculty and disinterested administrators in higher education?
Unfortunately, the current culture of universities in general has produced this effect. Faculty become comfortable, administrators become beholden to fundraising and sports teams, while students struggle under a mountain of debt. This is modern higher education.
The laziness of some faculty and some administrators will be the end of higher education. In the 21st century, the university can no longer afford to be on the sidelines. It can no longer afford to not actively, vocally and strongly support student interests and the interests of the public good.
As much as pundits label higher education as a âÄúliberalâÄù enterprise, it is far from liberalness. Faculty might identify as liberal, but administrations could more aptly be described as conservative. The mediocrity that permeates every corner of higher education works for a static university âÄî one beholden to antiquated notions of knowledge and averse to change.
But higher education must change, or it will not survive in the current century. Students often do their best to effect change through campus activism, but itâÄôs time for faculty members to come out of their closed offices, their hallowed halls and work for change. The mediocrity culture that pervades universities has been allowed to flourish under the noses of faculty.
Often, the arguments being made that faculty are ill-equipped to challenge such things or that things just will not change. These arguments are hollow and useless. Student activism suggests otherwise, and the stagnant culture of the university has corrupted any spirit of change that faculty may once have felt.
Moreover, this university culture produces students that will most likely be buried under debt, that will struggle to find jobs and that will have knowledge but often no way to make that knowledge actionable. This is the problem of the modern university. There are many people who are to blame, but thereâÄôs no one more to blame than the university itself. The university is a cumbersome structure and a walled garden whose culture people grow weary of challenging. It is through the cumbersomeness of the university that the university oppresses.
It oppresses faculty, staff, students and agents of change. Higher education is in need of serious reform. It needs to recall the point of its existence: to benefit the public good. It is reckless that universities have allowed tuition to rise so dramatically. It is reckless that universities have not actively challenged slashes to education funding. It is reckless that universities remain silent as educational programs are dismantled and corruption thrives in the halls of government.
Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, once remarked, âÄúTo educate is essentially to form.âÄù It is through education that people are molded and formed to be responsible citizens of society. This is one of the most important attributes of the university; however, what type of citizens are we forming now?
The university is now nothing more than a factory that perpetuates the economic divisions and class issues it should be fighting against. Higher education has lost its mandate to work for the public good, to educate, to level the playing field, to fight corruption and to fight and work for an enlightened society.
Perhaps itâÄôs too much to expect a university to have faculty that fight for reform and students who leave with a better understanding of the world than when they entered the university. Perhaps itâÄôs too much to expect that a university produce students with a head full of knowledge, a heart full of passion and manageable debt. Those donâÄôt seem like huge expectations but maybe they are, and if they are, then the university and higher education has failed the society it was intended to serve and enlighten.
It is frustrating to educate in a system that actively oppresses change. Education and knowledge are not static, yet the systems that seem to house them are becoming, if they are not already, so. The university must change itself from the inside if it can ever hope to challenge the charges of uselessness often put forth by politicians, pundits and others. The university must not be an oppressor of change but a liberator of it.

Trent M Kays welcomes comments at
[email protected]