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What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership

reviewed by Jessica Ostrow - March 29, 2018

coverTitle: What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership
Author(s): Robert J. Sternberg
Publisher: Cornell University Press, Ithaca
ISBN: 080145378X, Pages: 304, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Amidst the current American political tumult, higher education is under attack. Policymakers are cutting funding and even questioning the value of a college degree. Millennials are amassing debt. Critics are arguing that that colleges and universities have a negative effect on America (Pew Research Center, 2017). Despite these difficult times, higher education will prevail. History proves it. Since its formal inception at Harvard University in 1636, American higher education has evolved along with changing economic, political, and social conditions, while simultaneously striving to graduate students who are responsible citizens (Beane, 1998; Gamson, 1984; Nussbaum, 1997). Given our increasingly complex world, it has never been more important for higher education to respond to contemporary circumstances (be they climate change, government accountability, poverty, or healthcare) in order to cultivate leaders and foster global stability.

Within this context, Robert J. Sternberg writes about the future trajectory of American higher education and its potential to achieve excellence in What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership. The book is the culmination Sternberg’s 40 years of work in higher education as a professor, provost, and president, along with his leadership roles in associations such as the American Psychological Association and the Association of Colleges and Universities. At a time when new models of education are sorely needed, Sternberg presents his own view of how today’s higher education can improve our world.

Sternberg claims that the purpose of higher education is to develop ethical, engaged leaders and citizens by nurturing creative, critical, practical, and ethical skills. Accordingly, his book builds on this scaffolding by describing what universities can be. Specifically, Sternberg reveals his ACCEL model, which stands for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership. This model evolved from Sternberg’s belief that educating students for ethical leadership entails transmitting deep reflective critical thinking, in particular creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based ethical skills, as well as a passion for leadership. Sternberg argues that a university must explicitly show how its curriculum, both formal and informal, develops all these skills while simultaneously instilling passion. In particular, Sternberg shares techniques for developing the attributes of successful leaders and makes recommendations to help make our universities adaptive to crucial societal needs. Throughout the book, Sternberg also shares his insights regarding the realities of higher education as practiced today, offering suggestions for improvements which would produce graduates dedicated to making the world a better place, not just focused on their own individual gains.

Sternberg’s book is composed of five sections: A New Future for Universities, Who Gets In and Who is Able to Go?, Student Learning and Life, Structural Issues, and Putting Theory into Practice. Throughout these overarching sections, Sternberg shares how to incorporate ACCEL into all aspects of a university. He maintains that everything from admissions, financial aid, instruction and assessment, retention and graduation, student life, diversity, finances, athletics, governance, and marketing can all support institutions in clarifying their role at a time when their worth is under examination. But in higher education today, specific departments are developing in isolation, leaving the university as a whole in a disjointed state. In order to convey a strong sense of purpose, a unified vision is necessary. As such, this book differs from similar texts by suggesting new innovations to improve higher education via its innately comprehensive nature. Prominent higher education scholars (e.g., Birnbaum, 1988; Birnbaum, 2000) argue that the disjointed nature of higher education causes problems, such as progress occurring in an isolated, compartmentalized manner. Sternberg favors the rare approach of illuminating how the university can incorporate elements of ACCEL into all of its many functions (i.e., research, teaching, service, and operations).

Furthermore, in order to successfully incorporate all community members in the ACCEL approach, Sternberg alludes to the notion that for higher education to meet the challenges demanded by today’s world, it is not just students who are tasked with learning, but all members of the higher education community, including staff, administrators, and instructors. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea that all too often the onus is placed on the students, failing to recognize the need for the higher education workforce to learn too. However, while Sternberg does call for all community members to take part in the ACCEL model, I worry about the overall accessibility of his book. It is littered with academic jargon and language which might not be familiar to all members of the academic community. If this book is to be used to guide everyone in the university population, these types of exclusively academic terms can create limitations. Anyone, in any office, should be able to adapt the ACCEL model into their day to day work.

Another limitation of this book is the reference to the ACCEL “university.” This language may discourage (or exclude) other kinds of institutions from adapting this new practice. What about community colleges, tribal colleges, liberal arts colleges, and technological institutes? In fact, the majority of undergraduate students today are not enrolling in universities, and these other types of institutions have just as much a stake in educating students for ethical leadership. What would strengthen this model would be a discussion of how it can be adapted to different kinds of higher education settings (in plain, accessible language).

While Sternberg offers a strong case for synchronizing higher education structures with the current needs of society, his argument lacks the necessary consideration about implications for academic rigor. Today, many critics claim that higher education suffers from a lack of such exactitude (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Bok, 2006; Campbell & Cabrera, 2014; Pascarella, Blaich, Martin, & Hanson, 2011). For example, Arum and Roksa’s book, Academically Adrift, states that students today spend less time on academic requirements, yet earn higher grades (referring to grade inflation). Some critics go as far as to argue that increased graduation rates are causing college degrees to be less valuable (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Pew Research Center, 2017; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). I am therefore concerned that it will be a challenge to bring critics on board with the notion of the ACCEL university model without first discussing how alternative teaching methods would maintain, and perhaps even increase, academic rigor.

One additional concern is that the needs of our society are always changing. Perhaps it would be more realistic for Sternberg to make a case for strengthening leadership at this phase of higher education, and call on leaders to further develop the next phase. That said, this is still a great book. To me, its main strength is its call for a more diverse student population. One prominent scholar who integrates diversity and engagement is Sylvia Hurtado, who argues that you cannot look at engagement without looking at diversity (Hurtado, 1992; Hurtado, Clayton-Pederson, Allen, & Milem, 1998; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, & Allen, 1999). Unfortunately, a lot of engagement work still neglects to consider diversity, but aligned with the suggestions of Hurtado, Sternberg considers the implications of our ever-changing student population in the context of his book. I applaud Sternberg’s ACCEL model in its aim to cultivate ethical leaders, and in particular, contextualizing these leaders in light of today’s increasingly diverse student body.

Sternberg begins his book by stating:

I started thinking about the content of this book a few years ago–forty-seven to be exact, but who’s counting? I was a freshman at Yale. I had a great experience, especially in a special program [...] that provided intensive education in how to think about the problems of the world. I wondered whether I could ‘bottle’ some of the ideas in that program. (p. x)

I am hopeful that the ideas Sternberg elucidates in What Universities Can Be will be enacted by higher education policymakers, administrators, faculty members, and staff, and thus inspire students to “bottle” what they learn in the classroom and use it to move forward as ethical leaders who can drive society towards positive social change. While Sternberg’s argument could be enhanced by a stronger focus on the accessibility of the ACCEL model, this book provides a solid foundation for higher education scholars and practitioners to cultivate ethical leaders and democratic citizens.



Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Beane, J. A. (1998). Reclaiming a democratic purpose for education. Educational Leadership, 56(2), 8–11.


Birnbaum, R. (1988). How colleges work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management fads in higher education: Where they come from, what they do, why they fail. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Bok, D. C. (2006). The seizing initiative for quality education. Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 14(2).


Campbell, C. M., & Cabrera, A. F. (2014). Making the mark: Are grades and deep learning related? Research in Higher Education, 55(5), 494–507.


Gamson, Z. F. (1984). Liberating education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Hurtado, S. (1992). The campus racial climate: Contexts of conflict. The Journal of Higher Education, 63(5), 539–569.


Hurtado, S., Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., Allen, W. R., & Milem, J. F. (1998). Enhancing campus climates for racial/ethnic diversity: Educational policy and practice. The Review of Higher Education, 21(3), 279–302.


Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.


Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Pascarella, E. T., Blaich, C., Martin, G. L., & Hanson, J. M. (2011). How robust are the findings of academically adrift? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(3), 20–24.


Pew Research Center (2017, July 10). Sharp partisan divisions in views of national institutions. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views-of-national-institutions/2/


Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 29, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22318, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 3:05:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Jessica Ostrow
    Teachers College, Columba University
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA OSTROW MICHEL is a doctoral candidate in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at Teachers College, Columba University. She previously earned her Master of Education and Master of Arts degrees in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at Teachers College, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Interpersonal/Intercultural Communication and Spanish from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Her research interests include assessment of higher education teaching and learning, particularly in the contexts of environmental and sustainability education and educating for social change.
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