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Democratic Excellences in Colleges and Universities

By Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College

Robin Wilson’s October 3, 2011, article, “Syracuse’s Slide,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education surfaces controversies about the purposes of higher education and the nature of excellence which go well beyond one university. Indeed, there was a statewide debate on precisely these issues in 2001, the 150th anniversary of the University of Minnesota. The debate is likely to quicken in 2012, the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862, establishing land grant colleges and universities.

One side of the argument is unabashedly meritocratic and elitist. Thus Syracuse history professor David H. Bennett fears that “the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” a view echoed by the editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Orange, who worries that “rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the diploma.”

The supposed tradeoff is between “excellence” and “access.” A Minnesota Public Radio statewide discussion framed the forced choice about the future of the University of Minnesota precisely this way in Minnesota in 2001. More broadly, this supposed choice is today’s conventional wisdom, at the heart of college rankings such as US News and World Report’s, or, on a global level, the “Shanghai Ranking” of the purportedly top 100 universities in the world.

But there is another side to the argument. Land grant institutions like the University of Minnesota — founded a decade before the Morrill Act — were once called “democracy colleges.” The designation came from the conviction at the heart of America’s educational faith that diverse, inclusive student bodies, faculty members who educate them, and colleges and universities deeply engaged in the affairs of their communities and the larger world are wellsprings of democratic excellences far more dynamic and inspiriting than attributes of any exclusive club.

Lotus Coffman, president of the University of Minnesota from 1921 to 1938, eloquently voiced a democratic view of higher education in his inaugural address, May 13, 1921, entitled “The University and the Commonwealth.” Vowing to resist those who would locate the university on “some Mount Olympus” far above the world, he declared that “The truly educated American… believes that his institutions are social in origin and in nature, not the product of any individual nor of any special group of individuals, that they represent the soul hunger and the spiritual expressions of the common people…that a generous education for himself and a better one for his children is the only safeguard of democracy.”  One can’t romanticize earlier years in higher education, freighted with exclusions of their own. But Coffman’s vision – and dimensions of earlier land grant practice – represent understandings of public purpose and democratic mission crucial to update for the new century.

Today, state colleges and universities revive this vision of democratic excellences in the American Democracy Project, community colleges continue it in the new Democracy Commitment, and small and medium private colleges like Augsburg are taking leadership in this vein as well in the liberal arts world. In a time when it is far more important to re-dedicate ourselves to developing the democratic excellences of the broad citizenry than to cultivate a breed apart, Syracuse University’s President Nancy Cantor is a great democratic pioneer in the tradition of Lotus Coffman on the private research university side, helping to bring the democratic spirit of the old land grants to all of higher education.

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