John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Campus as Shelter

November 7, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Since 9/11 and the shootings at Virginia Tec and Northern Illinois University, Americans have been far more focused on safety in general and specifically on college campuses. Some years ago I wrote a foreword to a monograph on the concept of the residential first year in which I referred to residence halls, in the abstract ideal, as a “sanctuary.” And this past week as Super storm Sandy wrought its havoc on our fellow citizens in New York and New Jersey, I noted with interest that the City University of New York (CUNY) had opened it campuses to the needy of New York City as “shelters.” I am working with CUNY this year on a big project and so have been even more attentive to any news reports related to this premiere, urban, public university system.

Of course, the City University of New York has long been regarded as the higher education equivalent to the Statue of Liberty. It led the way to show the rest of the nation how to remove most all financial barriers to access to higher education. It led the way in creating at the city level equal opportunity access programs back in the mid 60’s, thus showing the rest of the country how to bring the full impact of the Civil Rights Act down to the local level. Whatever CUNY has done, the rest of us have taken notice of. When it provided free tuition it made the rest of us ask what we could be doing to demonstrate commitment. When it ended free tuition, this was noted by all as a harbinger of new directions. When it ended the offering of developmental education in its senior colleges in the 90’s, that was widely noted too. And this past week, when the University became, literally and officially part of the City’s “shelter” system, we noted and this time applauded again.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I have a long and dear friend, Scott Evenbeck, who is the founding President of CUNY’s New Community College. He wrote us a message on November 5 in which he told Betsy and me “The first student arriving on campus today said he was so glad to be in a safe place. His house had 10’ of water…”

“So glad to be in a safe place…” This speaks to me about what a primary mission of higher education has become: the providing of a safe place.

Since the storm, I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about our campuses as “shelter”, “safe houses”, “safe places”, “refuges”, “sanctuaries.” In a country where we have been gradually gutting the social safety net, and will do so even more probably no matter who gets elected on November 6, college campuses have become something that was not our historic primary mission: we are part of the social safety net. This means we performing many societal roles for which we were not originally designed, such as providing health and child care, and many more such roles.

We provide, literally “shelter” for some students who are, literally, homeless.

We provide an environment where ideas can be exchanged with civility even where there are strong divergences of opinion. This is in contrast to the screaming heads on television and to some politicians who actually urged voters to support them this year because of their refusal to compromise.

In a culture where all citizens are constantly bombarded with false or misleading claims by advertisers, we provide a culture where factual presentations are still the gold standard.

In a culture where mass culture and the political sphere expose us constantly to extreme emotional pitches and manipulation, on campus we still worship at the altar of the god of rationality.

In a culture which is extremely successful in producing extremes of wealth and success, on campus we still strive to treat all equally.

In a culture that generates high levels of anxiety and stress in so many of our citizens, our students find comfort, solace, and support in the counsel they receive from our advisors and counselors.

For our citizens who come to us from communities characterized by high crime rates, our campuses are still relatively oases of security, for both our persons and our property.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are places of refuge, especially this week at the City University of New York.

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