How can colleges recover their civic souls?

How can colleges recover their civic souls?
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College has become a staple of national news and a source of serious bipartisan concern about equity. For example, the Washington Post ran an op-ed last week that illuminated the inequitable share of college debt burdening Black students. The New York Post published a feature on Saturday about the $1.8 million salary of the president of Long Island University. To cap off the unmasking of inequities within academia, the New York Post reported on Sunday that the cash-strapped City University of New York system hired the “powerhouse” consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for $3 million for two months of work to come up with a fall reopening plan. Democratic New York state Sen. John Liu from Queens, New York City’s most middle-class borough, asked: “High-priced consultants on a plan for which there are already enough highly paid CUNY officials, while students continue to suffer from a shortage of full-time professional faculty?” This is about equity, pure and simple.

What makes this discussion painful is that we are talking about education. Universities are not investment banks or mega-corporation such as Amazon. The words of college presidents, provosts, chief financial officers and other lead administrators ring hollow on diversity, equity and inclusion if they don’t live out those fundamental values. Higher education is supposed to be a beacon of aspirational social and economic access. Right now, though, it is — as we say in my field of urban policy — an “enclave.” It needs to get back to its core mission of service to a deliberative democracy and the forging of citizens.

College is the arbiter of class and opportunity in this country. We need to reform it from the ground up if we are to reboot an America that offers a genuine commitment to equality of opportunity. This era of COVID-19 is an inflection point of an American reckoning about the gross socioeconomic divide that has engulfed our country. If colleges’ boards of trustees are serious about both the fiscal and moral health of their institutions, they need openness to decision-making that offers real systemic reform. This is not a conservative or liberal position; it is a human one.


With $40 billion set to flow to colleges from the American Rescue Plan, we have the social responsibility to ask how higher education will be redesigned in a way that is fair to the rest of America. How can colleges recover their civic souls?

There are four ways to do this. First, give back to the neighborhood. Scholars have found that universities are among the most important local economic actors. Higher education institutions must be involved as change agents on the ground in their cities. Become a partner with a local redevelopment authority in a social impact investment such as affordable housing. Open an early childhood center on campus. These happen to be sustainable sources of revenue, depending on how they are structured, while also offering ways a college can return to the municipality the gift it enjoys of no property taxes. Engage economically with the host community.

Second, implement fair pay scales at higher education institutions. Not all employees should be paid the same, but the gap between administrators, faculty and staff is beyond any semblance of equity. It mirrors the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 in an America that is bleeding its middle class. Colleges may be plowing through a tough economy, but many higher ed institutions are remarkably stable and are not going out of business.

Third, lower tuition. Yes, some schools are doing this, and there are no reports that this change has undermined institutional health. Administrators earn their keep because they raise money. Be entrepreneurial. Grow sources of revenue that have actually opened up during the pandemic because of new learning modalities. Develop innovation and provide more options for the sake of access while making college affordable.

Fourth, partner in ways that embed community engagement into undergraduate curriculums. Cities need help today. Students, faculty and administrators have expertise that can strategically guide municipalities in all the areas that a liberal arts education supports, from the arts to education to STEM to civic discussions of democracy in the humanities. Bring the campus to the community. Town and gown should be allies in forging a more just society. Colleges can be incubators — think tanks of policy ideas.

None of these recommendations is partisan. Work on affordability, correct lopsided pay scales and get into the community. It’s just about democracy. Clear the way toward restoring public faith in universities in a country where millions of families are struggling. Pivot colleges toward their original mission as moral leaders in the public square. That was the promise of the American college at the dawn of the republic. Education historian Johann Neem states that college is “a gathering, a coming together for shared purposes.” What better vision is there for the university today? 

Abraham Unger, Ph.D., is director of urban programs and associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Wagner College, New York. From 2017 to 2020 he was project manager of the East Shore Local Development Corporation at the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce Foundation. He is the author of “The Death and Life of the American Middle Class.”