Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and Its Colleges and Universities
reviewed by Dan Jenkins - July 03, 2019
Title: Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and Its Colleges and Universities
Author(s): Holden Thorp & Buck Goldstein
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
ISBN: 1469646862, Pages: 208, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com
The complexity associated with the partnership between America and its colleges and universities is rooted in political and economic factors, leadership and change, and variable attitudes as well as perceptions of students, faculty, administrators, boards, and other stakeholders. While higher education in the United States was founded on the principles of creative and critical inquiry, and later advanced by the government to focus on agricultural, industrial, and scientific areas as well, the rise and fall of for-profit behemoths and competing interests related to student recruitment, retention, and tuition, have led colleges and universities to endeavor creative solutions as well as return to their roots. In Our Higher Calling, Thorp and Goldstein offer a series of chief systemic convolutions affecting the partnership between America and its colleges and universities and provide context as well as recommendations for rebuilding this vital enterprise.
Building upon their own experiences in higher education, Thorp and Goldstein beautifully contextualize and give credence to American universities, identifying them as the best in the world in the opening chapter. Yet, due largely to complex economic factors related to the facilitation of academic medicine, balancing faculty responsibilities of teaching and research, and institutional accountability for graduates career readiness, they explain, the partnership between America and higher education requires reframing. And to reframe means dually and collaboratively addressing the aforementioned challenges with defined strategy, shared understanding, and structural accountability.
Thorp and Goldstein describe a reimagined and invigorated partnership (and the strategy to achieve it) built upon a foundation of three crucial considerations. The first is that students are not customers. In Chapter Four, the authors propound that education is foundational to the idea of a university and that access, developing relationships, career readiness, and completion (with little or no debt) outweigh other variables of satisfaction. The second is that faculty are not employees. In Chapter Five, the focus is on returning to the origins of higher education through increased faculty engagement in teaching and with the public. This, the authors argue, will promote opportunities for rebuilding the partnership between America and its universities and set the stage for later arguments. The third is that university leadership is as complicated as it is critical to the sustainability of this reimagined partnership. In Chapter Six, Thorp and Goldstein point to the complexities related to university presidentship and trusteeship, serving stakeholders, and the various forms of leadership required to lead effectively in higher education. The key, they argue, requires focused contemplation and inclusive processes that aim to reestablish the compact that public education, public higher education, is for the public good (p. 88).
Building upon the perceptions, responsibilities, and relationships between and among American universities and their students, faculty, and administration, Thorp and Goldstein focus on the economic imperatives of the partnership. In doing so, they begin with a diatribe about academic medicine and then traverse through various economic development strategies ranging from the integration of innovation and entrepreneurship to academic and private sector partnerships. While central to many institutions among the Association of American Universities (where both Thorp and Goldstein are employed), the significance of academic medicine is inflated and broadly generalized. Among the roughly 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, less than 200 adorn medical schools or teaching hospitals (Barzansky & Etzel, 2018). Naming academic medicine as the elephant in the room in Chapter Seven is an intellectual reach. And while university athletics was not a major topic in Our Higher Calling, the quantity and economic impact, albeit in a distinct fashion, of academic medicine is dwarfed by the nearly 2,000 colleges and universities among the National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, National Junior College Athletic Association, and others (NCAA, 2018).
Far more fitting is the authors stance on the imperative of economic development. As quoted in the book, the statement by Professor Michael Porter that the prosperity of regional economics and the health of their colleges and universities are inescapably linked (p. 98) resonates strongly. When compared to the exclusive impact of academic medicine, Thorp and Goldstein make a far stronger case in Chapter Eight about the importance of research universities large and small as well as schools of all sizes and their economic benefits to the regions around them. These impacts range from start-ups to job training programs and technology transfer offices to the strategic use of an institutions real estate. In any case, however, the authors purport that its essential to develop institutional strategy, expectations, and accountability. When done effectively, universities may drive innovation and operate as economic engines. Even so, the authors warn, university leaders are telling two different stories that may impede such progress. According to Thorp and Goldstein, the first story, told to politicians and trustees, is about the university as an engine of economic growth and entrepreneurship, and the second, told to the faculty, is a story of free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge (p. 108) The key to unlocking the partnership rests in resolving these two tales.
To address this resolution, Thorp and Goldstein build a case in Chapter Nine for both basic research and entrepreneurship. This position situates basic research as a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship built upon faculty autonomy and epistemological inquiry and discovery. Equally, this partnership must include applied research aimed at solving real-world problems and teach[ing] students how to do the same (p. 112). The latter connects back to telling this story and, according to Thorp and Goldstein, Applied research is more easily explained. They argue that, just as the scientific method can be applied to almost any real-world problem, disciplined approaches to innovation and entrepreneurship have application the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and any other activity that requires a sustainable operating model to survive. Equally, they argue, as jobs at large companies change in response to a dynamic business environment, a flexible, entrepreneurial mindset will increasingly be a requirement for success (p. 113). Thus, universities must aim to define entrepreneurship broadly as a practice that can be applied to a variety of challenges and opportunities. And, in doing so, the authors argue, significant changes throughout the curriculum can take place without threatening the ideals of a traditional liberal education (p. 117).
Closing in on the dénouement of their thesis, Thorp and Goldstein return to the central and societal expectation that earning a college degree will lead to a good job. Yet, as the authors caution, whereas 96% of chief academic officers think their graduates are career-ready, only 11% of business leaders agree (Butler, 2016). To address this disconnect, Thorp and Goldstein cite attributes sought by prospective employers such as leadership, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem-solving ability, and propose a proactive curriculum grounded in problem-based learning. In this multidimensional approach to career readiness, professors go from being authorities conveying knowledge to coaches empowering and encouraging teams to discover and apply knowledge (p. 123).
In the final two chapters, Thorp and Goldstein frame the myriad possibilities through the same method they argue must be adopted by Americas universities if they want to succeed: a story. In a fictional dialogue among university stakeholders, the authors return readers to rebuilding the partnership and offer recommendations for doing just that. The chief recommendations are premised by including and listening to the voices of the public, students, faculty, and staff, and reminding those engaged in American higher education that being part of the conversation is a gift. The higher calling, they explain, is about rebuilding the partnership with the true customer of higher education: the American public.
Barzansky, B., & Etzel, S. I. (2018). Medical schools in the United States, 2017-2018. JAMA,
Butler, S. M. (2016, December). Business is likely to reshape higher ed. Brookings Institution.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). (2018, March). NCAA recruiting facts. Retrieved from https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Recruiting%20Fact%20Sheet%20WEB.pdf