- What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education ed. by Ellen Condiffe Lagemann, Harry Lewis
In order to catch a glimpse of the challenges facing America’s colleges and universities in terms of the purposes that define them, look no further than the high end of salary scales. For example, on September 4, 2012, Monte Burke (2012) contended in a Forbes article that Nick Saban, the University of Alabama’s football coach, was not only the most powerful coach in America regardless of sport but also the highest paid in college football at $5.3 million a year. In comparison, President Robert E. Witt, the highest paid employee at the University of Alabama outside of the athletic department, makes approximately ten times less than Saban at $512,000 per year.
While the picture I paint is admittedly one of the most extreme, such a disparity between the salaries of certain coaches and the highest paid officials outside of athletic departments is not uncommon. Salaries for many football coaches and men’s basketball coaches often outpace the salaries of chief administrators by a considerable margin. Many baseball and women’s basketball coaches are also now joining this list. Compounding the challenge for the not-for-profit University of Alabama is the fact that that Saban leads a unit that not only turned a profit but made $77 million last year, according to Burke. [End Page 427]
So, what then is the purpose of the University of Alabama and of institutions of higher education as a whole? In What Is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College and Harry Lewis of Harvard University cultivate a thoughtful framework (but one that could arguably go further) among their fellow contributors for considering just this question. The byproduct of a seminar led by Lagemann and Lewis between February 2008 and June 2009, this collective effort is “grounded in our belief that attention to questions of purpose is critical to any commitment to strengthen the colleges and universities that serve the people of this country and the world” (p. 1).
In addition, they contend that questions of purpose are “always essential to mission-driven institutions” (p. 3). Most of the chapters included in this volume are divided according to the expertise of the contributors or the organizational units they have labored to serve. Lagemann and Lewis contribute a chapter concerning the need for a renewal of the civic mission in higher education. However, the rest of the chapters then explore the role of purpose in such sectors of higher education as the sciences, liberal arts colleges, schools serving nontraditional students, professional education, and graduate education. In the end, their common “contention is simply that there must be discussion” about this question of purpose (p. 8).
For example, in what is arguably the strongest chapter in the volume, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, former President of Bates College and current Executive Director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, contends that liberal arts colleges make a unique contribution to this conversation because they provide “both clarity of purpose and a reasonable consensus about what excellence in achieving that purpose looks like” (pp. 63–64). The array of integrated curricular and co-curricular offerings makes for the development of what she then identifies as “liberated consumers.” Instead of being passive consumers who simply strive to earn a living that allows them to buy what the market tells them they need, “liberated consumers” wade into the structure and the purpose that defines it.
While I greatly appreciate the initiative taken on by Lagemann, Lewis, and the contributors to this edited volume, I wonder if the way they frame their conversation goes far enough. Part of the challenge here resides in the normative structure of the methodology defining this volume. Case in point, the philosophical roots of the notion of purpose go back to Aristotle and the concept of telos...