John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Remove One Given from Your Campus: What Difference Would It Make?

John Gardner

One of the many benefits I have found of foreign travel is the incentive it gives me to look at my work in higher education from new perspectives. Case in point: I write this piece in Venice, Italy, a city where no automobiles or bicycles are allowed due to the lack of streets (“streets” meaning vehicular conduits), narrow passageways, narrow little bridges over the canals, and heavy pedestrian traffic which must be protected. It took a while for this to sink in: that I was in a city with no cars. No automobile noise. No having to look out for vehicles that might hit me as a pedestrian. And no fire trucks or vehicular ambulances either. Amazing. What if we banned all automobiles from our campuses?

The absence of this invention that changed the landscape of America really stunned me. I am almost never anywhere in the US where cars are banned. And the last time I was in a city that banned them was in Siena, Italy, in November of 2011.  This set me thinking about the plethora of impacts on American civilization wrought by the automobile including: the liberation of women (sexual, familial, and professional); the liberation of teenagers (sexual); the creation of the “burbs” and the flight from cities; the stultifying culture of the suburbs leading to the return to America’s most livable and interesting cities; all the “drive-in’s” from used-to-be movie theaters to eateries to liquor stores to funeral homes; to the industrial base that played a key role in our winning World War II; I could go on forever with this litany.

So what if we took just one of the givens out of the typical higher education campus? How about banning cars from residential campuses and forbidding the students to have them? Think what that would do for the “suitcase” campus. Think what that would do for student participation in co-curricular activities. Think what that would do for student engagement. And besides, we already know that teenagers are forgoing cars as a necessary tool to meet people now that they have the internet linked with the right apps for their smart phones.

What if we removed varsity revenue sports? Even just one. Now there would be a game changer. But that would be downright un-American. Which would be easier or harder to get rid of: football or automobiles?

What if we got rid of general education, and allowed our students to do what most of them want to do anyway and go right into their majors? We would reduce the time-to-degree periods necessary for a bachelors degree and save governments, families, and students a fortune?

What is there that we absolutely have to have to constitute an institution of higher learning? What could we never get rid of? The library? The faculty? No, we could redefine and outsource those two. Security. Now there’s a function that could not be currently outsourced. Perhaps in a decade or two with surveillance cameras everywhere and drones on demand to rescue those in distress we could even do away with security. Well, how about administration? Surely we could never outsource or outright eliminate administration. Somebody has to be in charge.

Wait a minute, I almost forgot. Here’s something else that we could not eliminate: students. But I have heard it said by some higher educators that their campuses really are nice places to work when there are no students around. This is in the same vein as I have frequently observed to flight attendants: you would have a good job if it weren’t for the passengers.

I am glad I have been encouraged to think about the givens and which of them I/we could give up. It has become increasingly obvious we can’t afford and don’t want to keep on doing all we do, have, maintain, support in the US higher education structure, as our national public policy currently leads us on a race to the bottom.

But while in Venice, I spent most of my time thinking more pleasant thoughts, facilitated by the absence of the noise made by cars. Eliminating such modern urban sources of noise sure does help reflection.

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