Blogpost: Reclaiming the Public Good in Higher Education by Kyle Southern

Kyle-SouthernOver the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of participating in a series of events that each highlighted, in their own way, the necessity of foregrounding a public good mission in American higher education.

On November 5-6, the Rackham Graduate School here at the University of Michigan hosted a compelling Summit on Diversity in Graduate Education. The event brought together leaders from institutions across the country. Participants considered the role of higher education as an enabling force in the promotion and creation of knowledge. As at the undergraduate level, graduate education must engage historically underrepresented groups of Americans in advanced fields of study. American society can never achieve its full potential when only portions of the population experience the benefits of higher education. Dr. Penny Pasque, Associate Professor of Adult and Higher Education at the University of Oklahoma and a visiting scholar at the National Forum this academic year, offered the challenging insight that policymakers, educators, and the general public must develop a recognition that the private benefits of higher wage prospects and improved economic conditions are not mutually exclusive from the public benefits of a more engaged and engaging citizenry.

Still reflecting on the Diversity Summit, I took off with my colleagues from the National Forum to attend the annual Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) conference in St. Louis, Mo. Whether discussing the challenges and opportunities of access to higher education for undocumented students, considering new research on ways in which flagship universities are seeking to recover revenues lost as a result of declining state support, or learning about the experiences of Latino males in advanced science programs, I could not—or perhaps refused to—shake the lens of advancing the public good through higher education. As a community, those of us committed to a new vision for higher education in the twenty-first century—a vision in which higher education serves to promote equity and social justice, rather than perpetuate the inequities of the past—must inform this vision with a determined commitment to the public good served by institutions of higher learning.

One of the great higher education visionaries, Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, visited the University of Michigan on November 21. Through a series of presentations and workshops, Mr. Merisotis presented Lumina’s commitment to enhancing attainment of high quality higher education credentials nationwide by 2025. As he pointed out, the foundation cannot only support efforts to boost attainment rates for the sake of putting more credentials in the hands of Americans in the coming decade. This work recognizes the promise of higher education not only to enable a better economic future, but to equip graduates with the experience of working with diverse sets of colleagues, social capital to advocate for positive change, and passion to build stronger communities. As Dr. Pasque stated at this month’s Diversity Summit, “risks require patrons.” I am grateful to know organizations such as the Lumina Foundation are at the forefront of broadening access to higher education in an effort to promote the public role the sector must serve to realize its own full potential.