Since the announcement of my appointment as president in February to the day I took office last month, the world as we knew it has changed dramatically. The pandemic has provided a cruel backdrop for the systemic inequality that has bubbled under the surface of our society—the public reckoning and acknowledgement of that fact has led to an immediate about-face in the way we view and interpret our complex history as a nation. While I have personally enjoyed the spirit of openness and generosity of America throughout my adult life, I know not everyone is offered the same opportunities I was given.
I try to reconcile these issues as I settle into the city and take my early morning runs along the East River. On these runs, I wonder how as president I can bring the Baruch community together through this unparalleled time while simultaneously envisioning a better future. I ponder what changes we could implement that would instill in students the value of community and the worth of every individual while also ensuring everyone’s health and safety. While we are not alone in the current struggle, we at Baruch have an opportunity to be at the forefront of reimagining higher education in this country.
Why “Reimagining” Higher Education?
In the U.S., public higher education is well understood as a critical component of economic and cultural development and as an institutional means for social mobility in a democratic society. These important functions were well recognized by the mid-1800s when the federal government began investing public funding in state land-grant colleges. Following World War II, federal funding through the GI Bill was an especially important stimulus to the large-scale expansion of higher education and college degree attainment for ordinary Americans. By the 1960s, a college education was no longer reserved for the children of advantaged elites.
Over the past few decades, however, this trend has been reversed by a well-documented divestment in public higher education. Every time there is a financial crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing, public higher education is among the first on the cutting board.
Part of this can be attributed to competing public programs, fueled by a prevailing public sentiment that colleges advance “private good” for individuals rather than “greater good” for the society—hence the rhetoric that says students and their families should bear the financial burden. This, unfortunately, initiated a negative spiral. As public colleges increasingly rely on tuition revenue to stay competitive, institutions start to cater to an increasingly narrow population of students: those who can afford to pay, at the expense of those who may have the intellect but not the means.
A stark example is the fact that flagship public institutions admit fewer and fewer students from society’s lower income populations. With the exception of the University of California system, only 22 percent of the student enrollment at Association of American Universities (AAU) public institutions are Pell eligible. It is an acknowledged fact that educational institutions with a large number of Pell eligible, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students perform at an academic level well below majority-serving institutions. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows the minority-majority gap in completion rate can be as wide as 25 percent.
For years we not only created but have promoted an inequitable loophole in our country’s system of higher education. Before we can attempt to fix the problem, however, we must recognize what has gone wrong.
I argue that the current situation in higher education can be understood through the lens of “Institutional Isomorphism”—a term used in organizational theory to describe the process in which organizations in the same specialty field become increasingly similar in how they operate, yet distinctive from other organizations in different fields. The current problem in the field of higher education may be described as one of double-tier isomorphism: elite colleges—known primarily for their academic excellence—and colleges that emphasize their social mobility mission for all echelons of society rarely co-exist in the same institutional settings.
Reimagining Higher Education—Baruch Style
There are very few institutions that can boast of high academic renown while also serving the educational needs of all echelons of society. Baruch, however, takes pride in breaking away from isomorphism by not only providing access to a historically underrepresented population, but also insisting on the highest academic standards. This is critical because public confidence and trust in the value of a college degree are derived from the reputation of an academically rigorous institution, and only rigorous, high-quality education truly challenges and unlocks human potential.
Today, more than ever, inequalities in higher education need to be addressed, and Baruch has an opportunity to lead the nation. The global pandemic, ironically, opens a rare window of opportunity for us to take a fresh look at what we do and why we are doing it and challenge ourselves to reimagine what is possible. Here are a few preliminary ideas.
Focusing on Outcomes and Transformation
College admissions are driven by popular rankings that focus on input—measuring incoming students who are projected to succeed. Excellence of an institution should be measured by the transformation it engenders on each student. This is particularly relevant for the underprivileged, immigrants, and underrepresented minorities—each student who dresses in a certain way, has a certain accent, or displays a certain level of social discomfort conveys an unspoken message. The transformation from a college education is not only intellectual but also psychological, emotional, and spiritual. It not only changes the way an individual sees the world, but creates a new way to be seen by the world. How do we create a holistic approach toward admitting, educating, and serving students that facilitates positive outcomes and transformation?
Systemizing the Student-First Culture
It is imperative that we continue to put students first while providing an ever more efficient way to serve them. The global pandemic challenges us to envision and build an infrastructure that serves students’ diverse needs not only in-person but in a virtual, online environment. Imagine how much more efficient we would be if Baruch had a system where students could get all their needs met in one place, both in-person and online, without the need to visit multiple offices.
Furthermore, given ongoing national protests centered on racial injustice, it is more important than ever for us to reach out to students with drastically different needs. Not all students have the same access to technology or the private space and time at home to support their studies. A significant number of our students have stressful family situations and financial obligations. How can we more effectively address these kinds of issues in an off-campus, virtual learning environment?
Shaping the New Normal with Innovation and Community Partnership
For hundreds of years, higher education has relied on the lecture system or Socratic method of teaching, but the pandemic is forcing us into new ways of thinking, learning, and teaching. Thanks to technology, we are able to expand pedagogical tools that didn’t previously exist and empower faculty to be creative about what and how they teach. Although we already know we can do it rather well, Zoom and video conferencing are only a small part of digital pedagogy. To support a rich portfolio of pedagogical tools will require persistent investment toward a comprehensive educational technology (Ed Tech) infrastructure.
Beyond implementing new technology, I am particularly excited about the idea of further engaging the city as a Baruch initiative. It is imperative that students hone their academic skills, but it is also important they see themselves as potential agents of change. How can we be more intentional about producing students who are civic-minded and service oriented in their thinking? And, even in this era of distance learning and remote teaching and working, how do we fully leverage one of our greatest assets—Baruch’s location in the center of the greatest city in the world?
My recent conversations with business and civic leaders have helped me recognize that we are surrounded by hundreds of small businesses and community organizations that are teetering on the edge of survival. They need assistance and insight that match the expertise of our faculty and our students—from strategy, to marketing and technology; they also need guidance in interpreting policies and understanding social dynamics. Most of the needed assistance can be provided online.
Can we use this moment to conceive learning differently? How do we bring learning beyond lecture halls while instilling a sense of pride and willingness in our students to get involved in serving our community?
Envisioning the Future Together
The lights of Broadway are dim, restaurants are pushed onto the sidewalks, and the streets are oddly quiet. This is not the New York City we know but New Yorkers have proved time and again that they are strong and resilient. If there is one thing this current crisis will do, it will help us cross economic, racial, and education boundaries and be one.
There is much we as Bearcats can do to shape and lead the future of higher education by leveraging, strengthening, and systemizing a student-first culture; supporting and empowering faculty and staff to innovate; partnering with the community; and connecting our students and alumni to the core of the greatest city in the world. I encourage you to work with the Task Force for the Future and contribute your best ideas.
As we do this, we will emerge even stronger. We will have a greater sense of empathy for our neighbor and know that when we band together, we become a powerful force for social betterment. Let us use this moment to rise up, support our community, and be leaders of change in building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.