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Possibilities

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 This sense of education for community is inseparable from the public-service mission of most state-supported, land-grant universities, but perhaps the best-articulated version of that mission and its possibilities lies in the Wisconsin Idea. This complex of initiatives was an experiment in democracy in which “the extensive use of academic and other experts in government, agriculture, and industry, and an enlightened electorate were all prominent elements” (Carstensen 181). The origins of the Wisconsin Idea lie, in fact, in one of the weaknesses of the land-grant proposal; in Wisconsin, as in several other states, attempts to draw farmers into the agricultural education programs provided by the university had largely failed, in part because those programs were seen as too theoretical and too removed from the practical. In order to fend off an attempt by farm groups to create their own agricultural school, the university began in the late nineteenth century to offer a series of short courses, held throughout the state, that “gave the professors the chance to talk to the farmers and, what was perhaps more important, gave the farmers a chance to talk back” (183). The success of these short courses led to others oriented toward mechanics and industry, and finally to the radical notion that “what could be done in the field of practical education could be done in the field of liberal education” (184). These courses experienced varying levels of uptake, but they provided the first glimpses of what an extension program designed to bring university education out into the state might accomplish. The result, at the turn of the twentieth century, under governor Robert LaFollette and university president Charles Van Hise, was a set of political and educational reforms that brought experts from the university into direct public service, advising on a range of issues faced within the state. These reforms also established the university’s extension division, which focused on providing the people of the state with the education they needed, where and when they needed it, in the form best suited to them. This division was not adjunct to but a central element of the university as a state institution. As Van Hise noted in a 1905 address, the university is and should be focused on the needs of the people, both through its extension into the community and through its on-campus programs. A university, he argued, does not exist for the benefit of those who work there, and “[i]t is not even mainly supported for the direct benefit of the students who take advantage of its opportunities. It is supported that they may become better fitted to serve the state and the nation” (Van Hise 5). Serve, not lead. The purpose of the university, as coalesced within the Wisconsin Idea, was first and foremost research and education for building, and in service to, community.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Of course, these innovations were made possible by a very different political moment from ours, a progressive era in which reformers sought “to make government more responsive to the will of the people,” rather than the other way around (Carstensen 187). But the principles behind the Wisconsin Idea, particularly as they establish a focus for university priorities, might be drawn upon as a means of thinking about how the contemporary relevance of the university might be re-established, how the university might be integrated into the life of its community, and how the sense of its community might be extended throughout the state, and even the nation. This requires more than just a new public-relations campaign. Rather, building real connections to and within the community must be part of a long-term project of rededicating the institution to its public mission, in ways that both focus its efforts and invite public involvement and even ownership of its programs. Today, it seems, the primary point of identification with the state university for most residents is its major sports teams. By and large, the faculty hate this, of course, and recent studies have shown that the vast majority of athletics programs draw resources away from other areas of the university, rather than being the revenue pipeline so often imagined (Hobson and Rich; Wolverton et al.). But the research and instructional units within the university have provided few alternative means of fostering and maintaining such identification within the community, and it’s there that the university’s efforts must focus.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What kinds of programs might provide these opportunities for identification today? What might an university extension program for the twenty-first century look like? At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, programs such as these remain part of the institution’s infrastructure. The UniverCity Alliance, for instance, supports local governments throughout the state as they seek to make their communities more sustainable, inclusive, healthy, and livable, by bringing together teams of faculty and students to consult on and assist with locally-determined priorities (“UniverCity Alliance”). The alliance grows out of the recognition that while the desire for change within local communities is often strong, the capacity for that change—whether measured in new ideas or staff time—is often constrained. As the program notes, however, students have an abundance of creativity and desire to make change, and so bringing them into collaboration with city officials, with the oversight of faculty researchers in a range of fields from across the university, can provide the ground for fruitful conversation and action. Moreover, it provides students with hands-on experience in public service as a core component of their educations. The UniverCity Alliance thus provides a framework matching city needs and desires with university expertise and energy, ensuring that both municipal priorities for change and university educational objectives are met.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A project such as the UniverCity Alliance is a relatively easy reach for the academic fields that are involved in the collaboration, including urban planning, landscape architecture, economics, public administration, and the like, all of which focus explicitly on various aspects of place-based policy and practice. There are, however, programs bringing other, less obvious forms of university expertise to bear in communities as well. The University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Humanities has for the last twelve years, for instance, hosted its Great World Texts program, bringing students and teachers across the state together in reading and discussing a “classic piece of literature,” through colloquia for teachers, student conferences, and the creation of a shared set of instructional resources (“Great World Texts”). Similarly, the Music Engagement and Outreach program of the School of Music not only sends three of the school’s ensembles to perform in schools and concert halls throughout the state but also provides instruction, mentoring, and collaboration between music faculty and student musicians (“Engagement and Outreach”). All of these programs, and the many more like them, are meant to embody the Wisconsin Idea in action: the notion that the university’s expertise has been gathered not to improve the institution’s own status but to support the education and well-being of the people in the state and across the nation.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It’s impossible to let this discussion of the Wisconsin Idea pass, however, without a bit of attention to what’s happened to it in recent years. Most famously, Republican governor Scott Walker in 2015 launched what one columnist referred to as “a two-pronged attack” on the university, slashing its budget and proposing to eliminate tenure (Salzburg). These maneuvers were interpreted by faculty and students alike as an attack on academic freedom, and in particular an attempt to silence what is popularly understood as a bastion of liberalism within public life. One particularly damaging result for the university was an exodus of faculty, as they were “poached” by other institutions—competitors, straight out of the privatization paradigm—that could provide less risky, and more supported, working conditions. Similar interventions into the workings of state universities have been made by politicians across the nation, whether directly or through politically appointed trustees, who have at one and the same time radically decreased state financial support to higher education and significantly stepped up their intrusions into university governance. To see this happen in Wisconsin, however, after a century characterized by strong bonds between the university and the state under the Wisconsin Idea, was profoundly dismaying. We live in an age, it seemed to say, in which no amount of generous care for community on the part of the university can overcome the political ambitions of elected officials determined to fully implement their visions of a nation dominated by private enterprise and, in order to do so, eliminate their opposition. What can overcome those ambitions, however, is an infuriated and organized electorate. As the editor of a central Wisconsin newspaper noted, “People take a lot of pride in U.W.-Madison — it’s one of the crown jewels of the state” (Bosman). The full impact of continuing budget reductions and required restructuring is still making itself felt, but that felt attachment to the university, and the sense in which the people of the state have benefitted from its programs, is one of the institution’s greatest assets, and should not be underestimated.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 My own institution, Michigan State University, faces all of the same challenges to its public service mission as do its land-grant peers across the nation. But it also faces today an entirely different kind of crisis, the results of a betrayal of the public trust resulting from a massive abdication of the duty of care. And it is important not to diminish the extent to which such care is a duty owed by the institution both to its internal community—especially its students—and to the world. MSU, founded in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, was the prototype for the land-grant institutions established by the Morrill Act of 1862, and the university calls daily upon the public-service mission implied by that role for orientation and focus. And my original plan, at this point in the chapter, was to turn to talking about some of the recent programs developed here on campus that have built on the institution’s public-service legacy. But it’s impossible to talk about MSU today without talking about its other legacy, the Larry Nassar case, in which a member of the medical faculty and gymnastics team doctor (who was also, horrifically, the team doctor for the U.S. Olympic gymastics team) was revealed to have sexually abused literally hundreds of young women over the course of decades, including many after the first accusations had been made. The university is, as I write, under more investigations than I can count, by both federal and state authorities, including potential criminal charges in addition to enormous civil liability. The university president has resigned in disgrace, and there is currently a motion for a vote of no confidence in the entirety of the board of trustees before the faculty senate. Much of the external investigation is aimed at uncovering who knew what when, attempting to determine the precise level of blame and the appropriate targets for it. I would argue, however, that the blame is and ought to be limitless—even if members of the upper administration did not know, they remain responsible, and especially for the not-knowing. And I would also argue that while individuals must be held accountable for their actions and inactions, the target of blame must be the institution itself. The abdication of the duty of care is systemic, not (or not solely) personal, a massive failure encoded into the very structures and policies of the university, with an incalculable human cost.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The people that make up the MSU community—the faculty and staff and students and alumni—continue to work as hard as they can to do good for the institution and for the world. There are programs here that are seeking to cultivate new kinds of connections, through both research and teaching, between the university and the public. Citizen Scholars, for instance, is a program launched in the fall of 2016 that is designed not just to get students out into experiential or service learning opportunities in Michigan but rather to connect their on-campus learning with the community in ways that can help build citizen leadership from the grassroots up. Citizen Scholars is focused on “fostering the next generation of civically engaged, socially conscious, creative and innovative thinkers” by cultivating critical thinking, ethical imagination, and cultural awareness (“Citizen Scholars”). Students, who may enroll in any major within the College of Arts and Letters, are provided with both financial and human support as they determine and work toward their academic and civic goals, including support for internships and study abroad/away experiences. More than anything, students are encouraged to understand their educational processes as focused not just on self-enrichment but on the communal good that they can build. The program actively encourages collaboration and peer mentoring, working to create a community among the students at the same time that it connects those students with the world. That sense of community building points toward one of the program’s key aspects: students are encouraged to develop high aspirations for connecting their academic and civic lives, and they are rewarded with financial support and enrichment opportunities for having done so—but those rewards in turn create higher expectations for the students, who are challenged to bring the knowledge and experience they have developed back to the program and to remain connected through the program’s alumni network.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And like the University of Wisconsin and most other land-grant institutions, MSU has an extension program that brings university resources to communities across the state. The extension program is primarily focused on agriculture, natural resources, and health care, and thus primarily serves the state’s farm communities and other rural areas. However, the university has also created a broad series of partnerships within the city of Detroit, focusing on challenges ranging from urban agriculture and reforestation to improving student college readiness, along with a range of arts and education oriented programs (“Detroit Stories”). These programs include DETxMSU, which in summer 2016 brought 60 students from across MSU to the city to learn from and partner with groups throughout the city, contributing to a wide variety of projects. The key to these partnerships was, as in the UniverCity Alliance, finding out what the groups in Detroit actually need. Joshua Sapotichne, a member of the MSU political science faculty and coordinator of one of the DETxMSU programs, noted that many such programs founder because of the extent which which they “paratroop” students in for brief periods of time to help with problems they don’t fully understand. He went on to note that rather than saying “‘We’re from MSU and here to help,’ we asked, ‘What do you need? How we can help?’ These are the kind of conversations we had for months prior to when we started … so the work the students are doing has a lasting impact” (Kozlowski). Among the organizations that students worked with in the course of the program was the Detroit Historical Society; Nathan Kelber, who was manager of digital projects for the Society during summer 2016, shared via email that the two students who worked with his team helped to digitize and transcribe materials that are enabling the society to tell key parts of the story of Detroit’s history and preserve it for future generations.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 These efforts to build community-based partnerships are of course not restricted to MSU students; many faculty members are engaged in developing programs such as these or in research that directly involves surrounding communities. Dawn Opel, for instance, a faculty member in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Culture, is leading a study designed to help clinicians at the medical center work with partners in the community such as social services organizations in order to better coordinate and communicate health care plans (“Improving Health Care”). Bringing insights from rhetoric and user experience design to bear on contemporary health care communication has the potential to greatly improve the ways that providers and patients connect around matters of enormous importance. Similarly, Gordon Henry, a professor in English and an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation in Minnesota, is the founder of Indigistory, a collaborative partnership between the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, the Michigan History Center, and several units at MSU, including the College of Arts and Letters, the Native American Institute, and the MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. Indigistory provides American Indian community members, especially young adults, with support and resources to produce short digital films about their families and communities (“Indigistory”). And—just one more from among many possible examples—Chris Long, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, has led the development of the Public Philosophy Journal, an open publication employing a process of “formative peer review” designed to create partnerships between academic and public thinkers working on questions of deep public concern, with the goal of creating scholarship that is “accessible to, relevant for, and shaped by the public” (“About”). These forms of collaboration, focused on community needs, community voices, and community participation, have the potential to help reshape the ways that the broader public understand the university.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But even so: MSU cannot help but demonstrate the extent to which a university can invest in any number of positive community-oriented educational and research programs and still be riddled with massive internal blindspots about the ways that its systems and structures fail to uphold the values that the institution professes. No amount of service learning or community-engaged research has thus far succeeded in transforming the structure of our institutions—any of our institutions—or the ways they are perceived and experienced by the public in general. If anything, we lay the groundwork for an inevitable betrayal of the public trust every time we focus on building such programs without building corresponding internal policies and structures in line with them. To some extent, this is about resources, of course: sustaining a program such as DETxMSU over the long term remains a challenge because it’s the kind of program that is easy to celebrate as a nice grant-funded co-curricular addition to the university rather than understanding it to lie at the heart of the university’s mission. But it’s also about what we value in a less material sense. If the prime directive is to protect the institution at all costs, people who question institutional practices or who bring to light institutional failures will be silenced. But if the prime directive is instead to be building and protecting the community and all of its members, both inside and outside the institution, we need new institutional policies and practices that manifest that value.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 As my conversation with that provost at the beginning of this chapter makes clear, a university’s assessment practices are one of the places where the actual values of an institution are most emphatically expressed. If we encourage faculty members to develop open, innovative, community-focused projects, for instance, but then continue to privilege conventional forms of scholarly production such as the book and the journal article when it comes to merit and promotion reviews, we wind up reinforcing the view that inward-facing communication and traditional markers of excellence are all that really matter. Changing that value structure requires not just developing outward-facing university initiatives but attuning the institution’s assessment practices toward them. We must find ways, that is, of placing our value where our values are. But this is more than just a matter of rewriting a few policies and restructuring a few forms; it requires a thorough institutional self-examination and a real rethinking of the nature of assessment itself. As Nel Noddings notes, “our approaches to creativity and caring”—approaches that render them marginal within lives defined by production and competition—“are induced by the dominating insistency on objective evalution. How can we emphasize the receptivity that is at the core of both when we have no way of measuring it?” (Noddings 60). This crux problem arises in no small part from the nature of measurement and the ways we understand it: our tools for measurement privilege the measurable. Where we attempt to develop instruments for assessment that remove seemingly dangerous forms of human subjectivity and judgment in a laudable effort to make our processes objective, we inevitably wind up counting things. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with counting things; some things demand to be counted. The problem is that we wind up choosing things to count precisely because they can be counted, not because they matter. And as long as our assessment practices remain caught within a paradigm that privileges competition and prestige above all else, so will our institutions.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But what alternative do we have? How can we ensure that we’re counting the things that ought to count, and even more, ground our assessment practices in things that matter, even when they can’t be counted? This is a challenge being explored by the HuMetricsHSS team, a group of researchers in the United States and Europe, under a grant awarded to MSU by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The initiative describes its goals as “rethinking humane indicators of excellence in the humanities and social sciences” by focusing on “a values-based framework for understanding and evaluating all aspects of the scholarly life well-lived and for promoting the nurturing of these values in scholarly practice” (“About HuMetricsHSS”). The team’s process includes conducting a series of workshops that ask participants to articulate and discuss their most deeply held values and then imagine how those values might be manifested in scholarly practices such as publications, syllabi, and other outputs. The team began the research project with five articulated values—collegiality, quality, equity, openness, and community—but they acknowledged a key problem in the project’s design: “could we presume these values were universal, and might we craft a framework that allowed for adaptability if not universality?” (Jason Rhody). That framework is still in development, and of course how it might be taken up within institutions remains to be seen. However, one of the principal investigators on this grant is Chris Long, dean of the College of Arts and Letters at MSU, who began the project hoping to make the college a test bed for the implementation of such a values-oriented assessment framework as it becomes available.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 This project presents one possibility for real, thorough-going institutional change. I’d argue, in fact, that the present crisis at MSU might suggest that our own assessment practices are a necessary place to begin, because educating for community requires prior attention to our own community, refocusing the university on its very existence as a community with a public mission. The work of refocusing the university—of creating the paradigm shift that can direct our efforts toward new goals and new models for who and what we aspire to become—will at some point require administrative buy-in, of course, but it must be led by the faculty, working individually and collectively through their programs, departments, and colleges to demand a transformation in the structure and purposes of assessment, to insist upon the rejection of hierarchies based on competition and prestige. That the faculty have this ability, in an era of increasingly attenuated faculty governance, is of course not a given, but they should. As William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin remind us in their study of faculty governance in higher education, the AAUP in 1915 “asserted clearly that faculty ‘are the appointees, but not in any proper sense the employees,’ of universities; the example of judges was cited. The argument was that these appointees were responsible to a wider public, not just to their own trustees, for the fulfillment of the social function of the university” (43). The faculty, in fact, is the beneficiary of and has been entrusted with the non-market social benefits that higher education can provide; as such, our primary loyalty must be to those for whom we hold those benefits in trust. We have to take the lead in transforming our institutions—and in demonstrating, in arguing, as broadly and as publicly as possible the common good that those institutions serve—in order to ensure that such a common good continues to exist.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The question arises, of course: what happens if we don’t reorient our institutions to make them more communally and collectively focused, more worthy of the public trust? Maybe nothing. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and in the next election cycle a wave of outrage from the marginalized and disenfranchised will sweep in new progressive-minded legislators and other elected officials, representatives who understand the deep communal purposes that the university, properly supported, can serve. But maybe we won’t get that lucky. Maybe the current cycle of privatization and corporatization in higher education will simply continue, or even accelerate, and more new institutions that claim to serve the private goods of career preparation and individual enrichment will arise, profiting from public needs and anxieties. Some such institutions will fail, some will succeed, but all will undermine the purposes and preeminence of public-oriented American higher education as we have known it.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 3 If that often-idealized form of higher education is to survive, if it is to continue serving needs beyond those of the market, it must be rooted in community, and in care for that community. Care, as Noddings notes, is not just about feeling but about “relating and remaining related” (84). It is about creating and sustaining structures of communal and collective life that can endure. Such care is not just an obligation of individuals but of institutions: universities writ large must begin to think about their own relationships with one another as well, about the extent to which rather than being in competition they must understand themselves as interdependent. All of us—faculty, staff, students, parents, and the institutions that we rely upon—have more to gain from working together, from understanding ourselves and our institutions as intimately connected, than we have to lose in market share.

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Source: https://hcommons.org/5-the-university/possibilities/

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