Which of these is true? “The times they are a-changin’” or “Spinning wheel got to go round”? Professional and Continuing Education’s Great Opportunity to Lead

Which of these is true? “The times they are a-changin’” or “Spinning wheel got to go round”?
Professional and Continuing Education’s Great Opportunity to Lead

Let’s begin by celebrating the 150th birthday of the Morrill Act. This act was signed into law on July 2, 1862 in the midst of the bloodiest war fought on US soil. The land-grant act was introduced by a congressman from Vermont named Justin Smith Morrill, who hoped to finance agricultural and mechanical education. Just as important, he wanted to ensure that education would be available to those in all social classes. With this act, Morrill envisioned a “college in every state upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil.”

The Morrill Act established land-grant colleges whose “leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the State may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” (Morrill Act, 1862)

This act established what has been called Democracy’s Colleges. These colleges, as Nancy Cantor beautifully stated, “would drive post-civil war America’s prosperity, barn-raising with their communities to create innovation and spread educational opportunity.” Cantor captures the challenges and opportunities that the Morrill Act provided and continues to provide higher education. These Democracy Colleges, our colleges and universities, were meant to be and still are the impetus for barn-raising in our communities. What a powerful metaphor barn-raising is: the collective action of a community, in which a barn for one is assembled collectively by members of the community. There is a common good in helping others. And by providing leadership in community barn-raising, these Democracy Colleges will, through education, be engines (the term we use today) for innovation and again innovation as a common good.

Fast forward 150 years and we find the continuing need for Democracy Colleges. American Commonwealth Partners (ACP), an alliance of community colleges, colleges and universities, K-12 schools and others dedicated to building “Democracy Colleges” throughout higher education, have launched an initiative called DemocracyU. ACP uses the concept of Democracy Colleges from land-grant and community college history. The concept conveys the idea of colleges and universities as deeply connected to their communities, which makes education for citizenship a signature identity. ACP’s role is to “deepen the civic identity” of educational institutions, moving engagement from activities to strong commitments to education as a public good.

Is this emergence and celebration of Democracy Colleges an indicator that the times are a-changin’ or is this one of those wheels that keep on spinning? From my perspective it is a little of both, and it’s a great leadership opportunity for outreach and engagement units.

Nancy Cantor suggests that higher education may be at an existential crisis: do we work to solve the run-away train of higher education costs, low productivity, outmoded teaching methods, and exclusivity or do transform our universities into democracy universities where we serve as a “launch pad for America’s future talent pool.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-cantor/college-identity-crisis_b_1858171.html

In my mind, this is a great leadership opportunity for our field of professional and continuing education. I believe that we have the tools, the experience, and the passion to provide leadership on both of these challenges. For me they are reflected in the Four A’s (which you know I love to bring up): we are Advocates for Access, Affordability and Accountability.

We are the leaders in using new technologies to provide greater access in reaching larger audiences while possibly lowering the cost because it has minimal impact on the overhead of the home university. We are the leaders in developing programming to meet emerging workforce needs. We reach out to the audience in need and help to grow talent, and we create new partnerships for the benefit of all.

On our campuses we can, do, and should provide the leadership role in barn-raising, both for our university community and the greater community in the broadest possible definition.

What we bring as a profession is our passion for expanding access to the promise of education. We believe, and we act upon the notion of our founding fathers of “equality of opportunity.”

Our passion for providing access is needed now more than ever. In a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, they found that only 29 percent of young people in the U.S. will go to college if their parents did not complete a college degree. The 29 percent is among the lowest of developed countries. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-11/college-dream-dashed-for-children-of-the-less-schooled.html I believe our role is to provide the equality of opportunity, thus keeping the American Dream alive and ensuring that our children’s lives are better than our own.

I know that this call to leadership will not be easy task. There is a great deal of momentum for the higher education train. This daunting task reminds me of the lyrics from the Grateful Dead’s song The Wheel.

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.
Grateful Dead

I believe that by increasing focus on civic and community engagement, controlling the spiraling cost of higher education, and expanding access to higher education, we are well positioned to provide the leadership for our newly engaged institutions. After all, I know that my colleagues ain’t afraid of a little thunder or lighting.

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