Past as Prologue

Past as Prologue

In his 1963 Godkin Lecture at Harvard, Clark Kerr, then President of the University of California, famously noted that of the “About eighty-five institutions founded in the Western world by 1520 institutions (that) still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories” seventy were universities.¹ This was meant, at the time and since, to reassure those inside the academy as well as the academy’s critics that whatever the external circumstances and internal dynamics, universities were resilient and built for the long haul.  From their architecture to their degrees, regalia, and unique academic culture, Kerr’s message was clear. Universities and the idea of a university were built to last. Today, we are not quite so sure.  Will universities endure and if so, will they endure in anything resembling their current form?

These, as Kerr argued in his talk and in his subsequent book, The Uses of the University², are two distinct questions.  In fact, the history of colleges and universities, particularly in the US, is a story of adaptation and change.  Universities have persisted not because they have stayed the same but because they have changed in response to changing circumstances.  My bet is that this dynamic not only informs the past, but it describes, if not a blueprint, a design paradigm for the future.  Yes, we will have universities and while they will retain core elements of what we think of when we think of colleges and universities: the production of new knowledge through research and creative activity, the transmission of knowledge and skills through teaching and engagement with complex problems, and the development of civic virtue through the contest of ideas in the arena of free inquiry, fact, and evidence.  Let me be clearer. These are essential functions in a diverse, pluralistic democratic society and universities and colleges must remain committed to carrying them out.  At the same time, our higher education institutions must be able to respond to changing circumstances by working to continually improve the way they perform these essential services.

The history of American higher education is replete with examples of this kind of resilient innovation.  The invention of the land grant colleges during the Civil War expanded the concept of “useful knowledge” and the curriculum of these institutions reflected an epistemology that encompassed the latest in agriculture as well as Aristotle.  The invention of the community college created a whole new higher education sector, designed to both create a bridge between high school and college and provide education in the trades and lifelong learning.  The second Morrill Act, in 1891, provided for state supported higher education for African Americans, responding to the legitimate demands of blacks for access to colleges and universities. The list goes on: extension services to provide “non-degree” programs to rural Americans, the GI Bill which spurred the growth of new programs, including part time degree programs, for veterans, branch campuses to serve students in new markets including those abroad, and, of course, the use of technology to provide a growing catalog of “anytime, anywhere” educational opportunities.

Counter to the dominant narrative that has America’s colleges and universities in a Rip Van Winkle slumber, slow to awaken to a new era with new opportunities and new challenges, our institutions of higher education are more innovative, more dynamic, and more relevant than at any time in the last half century.  They are using data analytics to predict and promote student success. They are developing offerings tailored to the needs of particular industries or even businesses. They are reaching out to low income, first generation, and minority students in ways that promote on campus diversity and social mobility.  They are naming and assessing competencies from data analytics to critical thinking. They are developing technology platforms that allow them to achieve scale while maintaining or extending quality. And most importantly, they are rethinking the old paradigm of the eighteen-year-old college student who puts life on hold for four years to achieve a bachelors’ degree. In its place, our institutions are substituting a set of pathways with multiple on ramps and off ramps, pathways that students can navigate while they “do life” as parents and workers with competing priorities, attaining markers like certificates and credentials that attest to the mastery of certain skills, competencies, and bodies of knowledge.

To be fair to President Kerr, he well understood that adaptability was essential to the long life of American colleges and universities. For him, and many of us, the key to a successful future for colleges and universities is adaptation that fearlessly responds to present needs and hopefully anticipates future needs and opportunities. But it is also adaptation that just as fiercely preserves and promotes the values and purposes that separate universities and colleges from other kinds of enterprise: that commitment to producing new knowledge, to transmitting knowledge and skills to an ever more diverse population, and building the sinews of civil society. To do both is not an easy task and requires committed leadership and clearheaded advocacy.

“Colleges and universities may be more important in American life than they have ever been, as engines of social mobility, as builders of human capital, as generators of new knowledge, and as bulwarks of our diverse democracy”

To remain so, higher education must adapt and change without sacrificing basic values.  Will colleges and universities persist?  Absolutely. Will they be the same in fifty years, twenty, or even ten? Absolutely not! And that’s the fun part.

1 Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University. Harvard University Press, 2001. P115. The list also includes “the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Ireland, and of Great Britain…”

2 Ibid.


Ted Mitchell is the President of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for America’s colleges and universities. Prior to coming to ACE, Ted was the Under Secretary of the United States Department of Education, responsible for all post-secondary and adult education policy and programs as well as the $1.5 trillion Federal Student Aid Portfolio. Prior to his federal service, Mitchell was the CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a national investor in education innovation. He has served, as well, as President of the California State Board of Education, President of Occidental College, and in a variety of leadership roles at UCLA, including Vice Chancellor. Mitchell was deputy to the President and to the Provost at Stanford University and began his career as a professor at Dartmouth College where he also served as Chair of the Department of Education


** Cover photo by Sasha Prasastika from Pexels

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