College application season is upon us, and every publication, it seems, has a list bestowing the title of "best" on this or that group of colleges and universities. But with tuition costs continuing to climb and more students than ever looking to further their education beyond high school, important questions have been raised about the value of a college education: Is it worth it? Is the admissions process fair? And what larger purpose should higher education serve? Answers to these questions are elusive.
Cornell University professor Robert J. Sternberg, author of nearly sixteen hundred academic articles and editor or author of numerous books, including Teaching for Successful Intelligence and Educational Psychology, adds his perspective to the debate over the purpose and direction of higher education with his new book, What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership (Cornell University Press, 2016). A scholar as well as an accomplished administrator who has served in leadership posts at Yale, Tufts, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Wyoming, Sternberg uses the book to correct misconceptions about higher education and share his vision of what a university should be.
The state of U.S. higher education has been the subject of many books in recent years, providing those interested in the topic with no shortage of perspectives with which to engage. Some, such as Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education (PND review) or Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, are historical or philosophical tracts that highlight the trends and challenges confronting American colleges and universities. Sternberg's book is different. Part professional reflection, part prescriptive blueprint, it addresses how universities and colleges can better fulfill their missions in the twenty-first century while preparing their students for an increasingly diverse and complex world.
"The purpose of higher education," Sternberg writes, "is to develop active concerned citizenship, ethical leadership, and democratic participation through the nurturance of high-level creative, critical, practical, and wisdom-based and ethical skills." With this as his starting point, he lays out a framework he calls Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership (ACCEL) through which institutions of higher education can provide students with an "education that prepares [them] for and promotes [their] interactions with the world." Chapter by chapter, Sternberg outlines how each function in a university — from admissions and financial aid, to teaching assessments and university governance — should be structured to accomplish that goal, while sharing insights into the challenges and opportunities today's college and university leaders face.
He is critical, for example, of the narrow admission criteria favored by elite institutions and the way in which students are determined to be worthy of passing through their gates. He is likewise troubled by their reliance on standardized "aptitude" tests and overly narrow definitions of intelligence, which, he argues, are likely to lead in the long run to a "closed," stagnant, and stratified social structure. Indeed, with the country ever more divided between haves and have-nots, such an outcome is one of the challenges the ACCEL model is designed to combat, with Sternberg viewing the model as both a way to level the admissions playing field and as a tool to strengthen civic bonds and boost social mobility.
Also central to the mission of the ACCEL university is its focus on building students' capacity for leadership. While Sternberg shies away from words and phrases such as "character" or "student formation," preparing students to play an active role in society is certainly part of his vision. Of leadership, for example, he writes that it is "a path whereby one makes a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the world, at some level," and that far from requiring a formal title, it is something all students are capable of, provided they are given the chance.
More than a manifesto, What Universities Can Be is filled with insights into the practical nuts and bolts of U.S. higher education. At times, in fact, the book has the feel of a manual for the practitioner written by an expert who has lived and breathed his subject. But while the book is likely to be a useful resource for administrators and higher education leaders, it isn't for everyone. Filled with list after list of suggested actions or improvements, it's often dry and occasionally meanders into digressions that do little to further his arguments.
Still, with the many challenges facing higher education today, thoughtful, experience-based perspectives are invaluable. Sternberg's rich understanding of the subject adds to a growing body of literature in a way that is both useful and interesting. For the university administrator seeking insight and hard-won wisdom from a respected colleague, What Universities Can Be is worth the time. For the lay reader interested in the subject, there are more engaging and enjoyable books out there.
Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section of PND.