The American higher education system is often called the envy of the world. Many careful observers, however, find that much of what goes on in the name of higher education is mediocre or worse. The recent Spellings Commission found that American higher education is very high in cost, but to an alarming degree fails to deliver on educational basics for many students.
While the recommendations of the Spellings Commission focus on what the federal government should do, others in higher education prefer to focus on what individual schools should do to make their programs excellent. An assembly of leading educational observers will share their insights at the October 27 conference of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.
Every fall, the Pope Center hosts a day-long conference devoted to a key higher education issue. This year’s conference, to be held October 27 at the Hilton RDU Airport-RTP, will be about educational excellence. Do we have it? If not, what can we do?
In addition to hearing nationally acclaimed speakers — from college presidents to intellectual flame-throwers — address these questions, participants can dine with the speakers in small groups the night before by attending the October 26 “Dinner with a Scholar.”
The keynote address will be given by former Harvard dean Harry R. Lewis, author of the highly praised book Excellence Without a Soul. Lewis will speak on the topic “Does Liberal Education Have a Future?” He believes that colleges and universities should get away from the smorgasbord approach to the curriculum – allowing students to take pretty much any course – and restore the older idea that students should receive a well-rounded education.
Lewis argues that our colleges and universities “have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year olds into twenty-one and twenty-two year olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose in their lives, and to leave college as better human beings.” His book is now in its second printing.
The opening address will be delivered by Steve Balch, founder and president of the National Association of Scholars, who will ask “What Does Excellence Mean?” What is it about a school’s approach that justifies the appellation “excellent” and why don’t more merit it?
Four panel discussions will fill out the day.
The first features three higher education leaders, one from a public university, one from a private university, and one from the relatively new online sector. Elizabeth City State University’s new chancellor, Willie Gilchrist, the former president of Elon University, Earl Danieley, and the president of Yorktown University, Richard Bishirjian, will each talk about how he has attempted to make his school more excellent and what obstacles he has encountered.
The second panel examines the growing trend of donors establishing independent academic centers to enable scholars to teach, publish, and bring ideas to the campus that would otherwise probably not be heard. Do such centers help to promote educational excellence? What has their record been?
Panelist Russell Nieli of Princeton has done a great deal of research and writing on this phenomenon, including a study for the Pope Center. Robert Paquette of Hamilton College has direct experience. He was slated to direct a new center at Hamilton College, funded by a wealthy alumnus that would promote study of the values of the American founding. But the Alexander Hamilton Center was stillborn when faculty members who don’t want students to study anything that doesn’t indict western civilization threw a tantrum. Paquette has just announced a new center, the Alexander Hamilton Institute, funded by the same individual and located in the same town as Hamilton College.
The afternoon will begin with a panel on the role of university trustees in promoting educational excellence. The three speakers are: Candace de Russy, who served for 12 years as a trustee in the State University of New York system, Velma Montoya, who served on the University of California Board of Regents, and Todd Zywicki, who was elected to the Dartmouth board last year.
The final panel will focus on the college curriculum. It includes Elizabeth Kantor, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature and James Murphy of Dartmouth College, who, like Harry Lewis, is disappointed by the “anything goes” curriculum.
Anyone who is concerned about the trends in American higher education – students, parents, educators, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers – should consider attending.
The conference will be held at the Hilton Raleigh-Durham Airport at Research Triangle Park, beginning officially at 9 am, with registration and continental breakfast served at 8:30 am. The price is $20 (which includes lunch), and registration is easy online at www.popecenter.org or by calling the Pope Center at(919) 532-3600. Sign-ups for “Dinner with a Scholar” can also be made online or by calling the same phone number: (919) 532-3600.
George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and director of the Pope Center Conference on Excellence in American Higher Education.