Many factors have conspired to fuel the crises roiling higher education today. Perhaps the most important, and the reason so few institutions react appropriately when they arise, is that colleges and universities are facing a crisis of purpose and identity.
Another day, another campus crisis. And yet the truly urgent problems in higher education—students learning less than ever, rising employer dissatisfaction with graduates, and the skyrocketing cost of college—are lost in the chaos of student efforts to tear down statues, equip safe spaces with dogs and cookies, protest insufficiently woke speakers, and advocate for luxury dormitories and lazy rivers.
Many factors have conspired to fuel the crises roiling higher education today. Perhaps the most important, and the reason so few institutions react appropriately when they arise, is that colleges and universities are facing a crisis of purpose and identity, one that diverts focus from improving the quality of students’ educations in favor of the distraction du jour. Over time, this will only hamper institutions’ efforts to compete for a shrinking number of college-ready students.
The mission statements that purport to guide colleges and universities illustrate an identity crisis in higher education. Not long ago, most institutions conceived of their purpose in clear and simple terms. As the Honorable Judge José Cabranes pointed out, until recently Yale embraced the commonsense purposes of a university: “to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge.” The best way to advance those goals is beguilingly simple: hire the best faculty, establish strong curricula, reward teaching and research excellence, and foster a free and open marketplace of ideas.
Maybe the problem with such a simple and sensible statement of purpose is that it limits the role of campus administrators to supporting the academic functions of the university. Or maybe it is just not cosmopolitan enough for contemporary sensibilities. Glance at a university’s mission statement today and you will likely find a rambling paragraph expressing a cornucopia of vague and often incoherent aspirations. Most reference some combination of cultivating citizenship (not Yale’s revision), critical thinking, leadership, and (especially) appreciation for diversity and global perspectives. But apart from that last example, few institutions build a curriculum that advances the goals they articulate.
The disconnect between mission statements and curricula is new and troubling. During the post-Revolution era, American colleges and universities were more or less unanimous in articulating missions that committed the institutions to serving the common good and, as a result, the future of the new Republic. In 1802, Bowdoin College’s first president declared, “Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good.” The founding Roman Catholic clergy members of Georgetown University said the purpose of their institution was “to promote more effectually the grand interests of society.” At Bowdoin and Georgetown, the curriculum reflected institutional mission. Students studied Latin and Greek grammar, classical texts, and modern languages and literature, with a view to strengthening the intellect and cultivating civic virtue.
When colleges contemplated revising their curricula in the nineteenth century, they asked, first and foremost, whether changes to students’ course of study would affect the kind of graduate the school was likely to produce. In his inaugural address at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, now Michigan State University, President Joseph R. Williams said, “A farmer is a citizen. . . . He should be able to execute, therefore, the duties of even highly responsible stations, with self-reliance and intelligence.” Leaders at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan resisted efforts to develop a narrow vocational curriculum and instead balanced classes in the natural sciences and liberal arts with a practical course of study—to develop agricultural expertise and inform citizens, many of whom would go on to serve as effective public servants.
Today, it is often hard to decipher any relationship between a school’s mission statement and its curriculum. Consider Hamilton College where a year’s tuition is $54,620. Its mission statement avers that “Hamilton College prepares students for lives of meaning, purpose, and active citizenship. . . . Hamilton students learn to think independently, embrace difference, write and speak persuasively, and engage issues ethically and creatively.” Hamilton purports to teach citizenship, which is a good idea since 51% of college graduates cannot correctly identify the term lengths of U.S. Senators and Representatives, but it does not require students to take a single foundational course in U.S. government or history. Instead, these courses are offered as options, presented alongside “The Animal Other: Humans, Animals, and the Birth of Modernity,” a “historical exploration of human relationships with other animals from antiquity to the present.”
Similarly, Hamilton promises to foster creativity and ethical decision making, but it does not require students to take courses in literature, fine arts, philosophy, or theology. Instead, Hamilton allows students to design the majority of their general education programs to suit their personal tastes and inclinations. Why bother attending one of the most expensive institutions in New York if the faculty does not believe it can design a course of study that is worthwhile for all students to take?
Unfortunately, Hamilton is not alone. Many institutions allow students to choose their courses from sprawling “distribution” categories, resulting in a general curriculum that lacks focus, cohesion, and relevancy to the institution’s mission. A 2019 study that assessed the general education programs at 1,123 four-year colleges and universities discovered that only 32% require literature, 18% require United States government or history, and a paltry 3% require economics.
An appalling 12% require intermediate foreign language study. This means that most of the universities that trumpet their commitment to diversity, multiculturalism, and nurturing global citizens—oftentimes investing millions into diversity offices and inclusion programming—neglect to equip graduates with the tool that would provide them firsthand access to the perspectives of other cultures.
The good news is that a handful of American universities have resisted pressures to dilute their curricula. In stark contrast to Hamilton’s mission statement, the mission of the University of Dallas “is dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, of truth, and of virtue as the proper and primary ends of education” and is “committed to the study and development of the western tradition of liberal education, and the Catholic intellectual tradition.” The University of Dallas means it. That is why its curriculum requires all undergraduate students to complete courses in Western theology, fine arts, mathematics, history, politics, and English. The course descriptions even identify the specific texts and time periods that students will discuss.
The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO), with in-state tuition of $7,200, acknowledges that “all universities have a general education core,” but “most require students to select from a cafeteria plan of lower division courses from various disciplines.” USAO is distinctive in that it offers a real “interdisciplinary, liberal arts core” that includes “skills courses that teach students to express themselves clearly in both speech and writing” while also requiring students to demonstrate competency “in areas such as mathematics and critical thinking.” At USAO, all undergraduates must complete courses in rhetoric, fine arts, American government, and history, economics, mathematics, world literature, and biological and physical science.
The dominant guiding principle of higher education is no longer so singularly the cultivation of civic virtue. And perhaps that is inevitable in light of the advancement of learning and integration of the global economy. Nor is the suggestion that every college and university aspire to the University of Dallas’s or USAO’s mission. But academic administrators and governing boards should carefully tend to their institution’s mission, which means requiring a course of study carefully developed by the faculty to achieve the university’s goals.
The consequence would be an array of institutions dedicated to cultivating different understandings of moral, intellectual, and creative excellence—a meaningful diversity of institutions! By choosing an institution with a serious mission, students would be committing to a course of study that teaches the important skills and knowledge that will serve them well, whatever their individual talents or professional aspirations.
At a time many universities are struggling, things are going well at the University of Dallas and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. According to the department of education data, each boasts a reasonable cost of attendance, rising four-year graduation rates, increasing numbers of applicants, and low default rates among recent graduating cohorts.
The lesson for senior academic administrators and governing boards? If your school mission is worth pursuing, it will pay dividends to allow institutional mission to inform what students learn on campus. If the idea of aligning curricula to the goals the school professes is distasteful to campus stakeholders, or if the best that can be mustered is a shallow effort (multiculturalism without a foreign language), there is something seriously wrong with the institution’s mission.
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 Michael Poliakoff, “Can Storied Williams College Be Saved From Itself?” Forbes, November 21, 2019; Erin Allday and Lauren Hernández, “Hundreds protest Ann Coulter speech at UC Berkeley, arrests made,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 21, 2019; Lauren Camera, “The Higher Education Apocalypse,” U.S. News, March 22, 2019; Christian Schneider, ” ‘Bias Teams’ Welcome the Class of 1984,” The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2019; Jeremy Bauer-Wolf, “Free Speech Laws Mushroom in Wake of Campus Protests,” Inside Higher Ed, September 16, 2019.
 ETS report; Brandon Busteed, “America’s ‘No Confidence’ Vote on College Grads’ Work Readiness,” Gallup, April 24, 2015; Zack Friedman, “Student Loan Debt Statistics In 2019: A $1.5 Trillion Crisis,” Forbes, February 25, 2019.
 José A. Cabranes, “Higher Education’s Enemy Within,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2019.
 Yale’s mission statement can be found here.
 Joseph McKeen’s Inaugural Address can be found here.
 O. Clute, “Education at the Michigan Agricultural College” in Annual Report of the Agricultural Experiment Station, Michigan State University, ed. Henry G, Reynolds (Robert Smith & Co., State Printers and Binders: Lansing, MI, 1890), 504-516.
 Hamilton’s mission statement can be found here.
 American Council of Trustees and Alumni. 2019. America’s Knowledge Crisis: A Survey of Civic Literacy; the educational goals and curriculum of Hamilton college can be found here.
 Hamilton’s “2019-20 College Catalogue.”
 American Council of Trustees and Alumni. 2019. What Will They Learn? 2019-2020: A Survey of Core Requirements at Our Nation’s Colleges and Universities.
 University of Dallas’ Mission and Vision statements can be found here.
 University of Dallas’ core curriculum can be found here.
 Official Cohort Default Rates For Schools, 2019.
The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash and has been slightly modified for color.