Higher education has the potential to be a defining institution within societies but only if it understands the importance of its role as an independent, creative, and activist force.
This role is seriously threatened at present by two related factors: the inability of higher education as a system to effectively articulate and maintain support for its distinguishing and independent place in society, and the accelerating distortion of values and priorities within colleges and universities (and the system as a whole) that has come with increasing dependence on government and corporate influences.
To frame our engaged research, the National Forum utilizes various models.
(Click on an image for a more detailed description of the model and its place in our work.)
We have chosen these models because we seek to have an impact at many different levels through our work – changing individuals, institutions, and the larger society – our concentrated focus is on renewing the public service orientation of the system of colleges and universities in the United States.
In particular, we hope to inspire a greater awareness of the ways in which higher education operates as a system with a distinct history, operating culture, values, capacities, and purposes. Only by recognizing the important and defining qualities that colleges and universities share in common is the system able to act in ways that protect its essential character and promise. And only if colleges and universities become clearer about their shared roles in service to American society can they hope to maintain integrity and focus in a changing world.
Understanding and responding to the challenges presented by these trends requires a new level of awareness and a capacity to change. This capacity is found in the constant adaptations that occur within individual institutions but it must be complimented by transformation at the “system” level of higher education and become rooted in the relationship that exists between higher education and the larger society. To create changes in any complex system, particularly one that is diffused, internally competitive and generally unconscious of its own ability to operate as a system as that of higher education in the United States, requires a form of leadership that is typically associated with the formation of broad social movements. In movement ideology, ideas, people, and resources coalesce around a shared vision, even as actors within the movement maintain autonomy and self-direction.
“We will decide whether or not market forces will cause us to dwindle into just another player in consumer society or we will continue to be a force for change and improvement.”
– Margaret A. Miller, Change, September/October 2001
Transformation requires action in many parts of a complex system and from outside the system as well. There is not direct responsibility for attending to the challenges described for higher education. Action will rely on a partnership of committed individuals, institutions, and associations over several years.
The National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good draws on the commitment of a diverse set of partners who believe that change is yet possible for our profession, our institutions, and for higher education in the United States.