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Is the university accountable to the community?

Public universities are facing cost pressures they can’t relieve solely by cutting spending, raising tuition, or obtaining private funding.  Society is growing restless with their apparent unresponsiveness to social needs and problems.  Students and their parents are looking for assurance that higher education will provide them with job security.  And the traditional mode of instruction—the lecture—is swiftly becoming outdated and unable to compete with newer modes based on technological innovations.  All this adds up to a serious predicament for higher education:  universities must adapt or become increasingly irrelevant.

The public university did not spring fully-grown from the forehead of the First Scholar.  It was created by the public—specifically, by the citizens of the states, acting through their representatives in government.  Moreover, from inception to the present day, public universities have depended on tax revenue to sustain themselves.  These two facts make the university inescapably a public institution accountable ultimately to the citizens of the state and, insofar as it accepts federal tax revenue, to the people of the United States. 

As society changes, the university has a duty to change in response.  In America today, we face a troubling confluence of problems the potential magnitude of which could be devastating.  In a society such as ours that has long been committed to the optimistic belief that the application of positive knowledge can solve all difficulties, such problems generate intense pressure on the university to help solve them.  When the university has the knowledge and expertise needed in society’s problem-solving efforts, particularly when there is no comparable alternative source of this knowledge, the university must have convincing reasons if it refuses to respond.  Refusal without adequate reasons will lead to further withdrawal of societal support and to the creation of even more substitutes for the university. 

Many in the academy believe that most of their activities have a direct public benefit.  Whether justified or not, this belief is not shared by the public or state legislatures these days.  We are being asked to change our performance and mix of activities.  We are facing rising expectations of university participation in, and even leadership for, state and local problem-solving.  We are also being asked to share the resource-limitation burdens of society. 

Regional and land-grant universities are expected to improve the quality of life of the communities they serve.  As William C. Richardson, president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has written,

one of the critical challenges for higher education is to redirect our knowledge and our resources in the service of…communities and…neighborhoods.  In fact, it may be these investments that prove the true test and value of our research…  Can we…make a difference in the lives of people where they live…?  Can we build the capacity of people to play a central role in finding their own solutions? [1]  (emphasis added)

[1]  Cited in C. Peter McGrath, “Creating the New Outreach University,” University-Community Collaborations for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard M. Lerner and Lou Anna K. Simon (New York:  Garland, 1998).

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