The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we're working to achieve at the Colin Powell School--to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.