John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Campus as a microcosm: We must do better

It has long been asserted that college and university campuses are, for better or worse, a microcosm of our larger society. They reflect our values, aspirations, social classes, problems, and more. But at present, I am hoping that we are actively striving for our campuses NOT to be a microcosm. I think we owe this to our impressionable students. Let me elaborate.

Over the past two decades a leading indicator and symbol for our society—and hence campuses—is our government. And it has become more fractured, myopic, and dysfunctional by the day. Even though we recently had a presidential election in which the presidency, and both houses of Congress, were won by substantial majorities of one party, that party cannot govern. It cannot realize its major legislative goals. It cannot keep its implied promises to the voters. It cannot achieve even temporary consensus to significantly address many of the country’s most pressing problems. Shame on the Democrats. It is badly fractured and not really one party at all. As for the opposition party, its views and objectives are really driving the whole political process. The Republicans, in effect, are still running the country. They are successfully preventing millions of Americans from having pre-existing health conditions be a grounds for denial of what ought to be a basic American civil right: a right to health insurance (in lieu of a right to health care—there is a huge difference!). Elected members of both parties are incredibly selfish and don’t hesitate to take positions for the good of only a small minority of the populace. Witness, Independent Lieberman holding up the health care debate not so long ago; Representative Stupak holding up health insurance reform for 320,000,000 Americans over a religiously driven issue, which theoretically should be separate from a governmental policy deliberation. Senator Ben Nelson single handedly cut a deal for special reimbursement for Medicaid reimbursement for only his state. And Senator Bunning singlehandedly held up a vote on extending unemployment insurance for hundreds of thousands of desperately needy out-of-work Americans, including my brother.

So what’s the scene on our campuses? How do we show our students we do or do not come together for the common good? Do people of diametrically opposing views still treat each other with civility and dine and drink together—like our elected officials used to do? Are our student senates, our faculty senates, our staff councils, our department meetings, any more functional than our national leadership policy making bodies? Can we still achieve consensus without acrimony? Can we achieve some kind of moral center and focus that is still willing to extend opportunities for those who are less fortunate?

I believe we can and still do this. I hope we will strive to do so even more intentionally. My own college days are a constant reminder to me that I learned all about how organizations work, or don’t work; how power is allocated and used; how decisions are made; how change is promoted or obstructed—I learned all this from trying to effect change through student government in my little liberal arts college. Our students are and can learn the same today. What are we teaching them? What could/should we be teaching them? Right now, at least from my vantage point on top of a North Carolina mountain, the only hope in the short term, is for positive change on the very local level, such as an individual college campus.

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