From the President
In my first report as Teagle president one year ago, I spoke of “urgent challenges.” None has lost its urgency.
We hear, for example, about bribery scandals in college admissions, wobbling commitment to free speech on campus, shocking instances of sexual harassment and assault—all of which are serious problems that must be called out and redressed. As shameful as they are, I take encouragement from the fact that they are continually in the press. There is reason to hope that these forms of egregious behavior will subside with public exposure.
But it is also true that the singular vividness of such problems gives them an advantage in the competition for public notice, and that certain structural issues in higher education persist because they are more deeply entrenched and therefore less obviously scandalous or salacious.
Consider, for instance, the rapidly widening resource gap between wealthy institutions at the top of the prestige pyramid, which educate a tiny sliver of the roughly 20 million American undergraduates, and struggling private colleges as well as underfunded public institutions—notably community colleges and open-access branch campuses in state university systems—which enroll close to three quarters of all students. Many of these institutions are struggling to offer a sound education and even, in some cases, to stay solvent. My colleague on the Teagle board of directors, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, has written incisively about this alarming national phenomenon.
One inference from these hard facts is that despite worthy efforts by some wealthy institutions to recruit more students from low-income, immigrant, and underrepresented minority families, our higher education system is doing more to replicate than to resist the trend toward inequality in American society. Some “Ivy plus” colleges enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 50% of the family income distribution, and are able to spend almost ten times more per student than institutions mainly serving economically struggling families. This is a recipe for social resentment, contributing to the perception that the United States is becoming a less fair society.
At the Teagle Foundation, we conduct our work with awareness that these structural problems set the context in which young people compete today for the precious resource of a college education. We are therefore inclined to direct our resources to institutions that serve students from families in which it cannot be assumed that college is an automatic stop en route to adulthood.
One example of a program of which we are especially proud is an initiative at San Francisco State University, led by Provost Jennifer Summit, to provide clearer and more navigable curricular pathways to degrees in the liberal arts. As Provost Summit has observed, the greatest challenge students face on the path to graduation is often the curriculum itself: “They don't know what classes to take or if they do, they can't get into them. Or if they can, they don't know why they have to take them. And too often they become disengaged or fail and leave.”
With support from a 2015 Teagle grant, SFSU developed a successful model to engage departments in redesigning upper division coursework for the major to make the student experience more intellectually coherent while reducing time to degree. Since the inception of the work, both time-to-degree and graduation rates have significantly improved. In partnership with the California State University (CSU) Chancellor’s office and the College Futures Foundation, this program is now being implemented at five additional CSU campuses. We hope it will serve as a model for the entire system in our most populous state.
The SFSU-led project is an example of how Teagle tries to leverage its resources—by funding a good idea, helping it to get noticed, and thereby encouraging, sometimes in partnership with other funders, its dissemination to other institutions that commit to replicating or adapting it. In short, we try to identify urgent problems that are not getting sufficient attention and, in collaboration with outstanding grantees, lift up promising solutions so that other universities and colleges may see, explicitly, what can be done to redress them.
Another way of “scaling up” is to build alliances of institutions committed to a proven program model with nationwide potential. For example, the Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation (ENACT), a network of institutions anchored at Brandeis University, is committed to fostering lifelong habits of civic participation among students through the study of state-level legislative processes. With Teagle support, ENACT now plans to expand the program to institutions in all 50 states and to strengthen its digital platform to connect students and faculty across the nation.
Still another case of scaling up is our work to launch a consortium of institutions dedicated to bringing low-income high school students to campus for college-level summer seminars on major texts in the humanities. In the past year we have made grants to Yale and Rochester universities, and to Ursinus and Carthage colleges for the establishment of programs based on Columbia’s highly successful “Freedom and Citizenship” program. These programs give hope and a sense of dignity to students who often feel marginal and anonymous in high school. Students gain self-confidence and reassurance that they are capable of college-level work. They discover the exhilaration of articulating ideas not only to peers but to teachers who respond with respect. Under the direction of college faculty who believe in their future as informed participants in American democracy, they find themselves in dialogue with great writers, from Plato to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They learn to debate basic questions about human nature, justice, and social organization. They learn to form arguments—spoken and written—based on evidence rather than received opinion. In short, they acquire skills and attitudes that are indispensable for civil society. We are hopeful that this model will spread to many more institutions in the years ahead.
Our work with high school students is closely related in spirit to another program designed to counter the sense of scattered bewilderment often felt by incoming college students, and to create for them a genuinely collegial intellectual experience shared with other students. At Austin Community College in Texas, and at four campuses of the The City University of New York—Hostos Community College, LaGuardia Community College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, and New York City College of Technology—Teagle is supporting an experiment in basing sections of required introductory courses on a “Great Books” syllabus. Evidence is already at hand that students assigned to these sections perform better on qualifying exams for upper level courses than do their counterparts who take “regular” English or Composition classes. A happy effect of this experiment is that it is fostering a sense of community and camaraderie not only among students but among faculty as well.
Another example of scaling up is Teagle’s grant to North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges to develop statewide transfer pathways from public community colleges to private independent colleges so that transfer aspirants can proceed to their new institution with junior status in their majors. It is not uncommon for states to develop transfer mechanisms between two- and four-year institutions in the public sector, but private colleges also play an important role in providing access to higher education and should not be overlooked. In North Carolina, private colleges are often the only four-year college option close to home for students in rural parts of the state. We believe this project will demonstrate the value of engaging independent colleges in building statewide transfer pipelines for community-college students hoping to complete a four-year degree in the liberal arts.
Finally, in this selective list of current Teagle initiatives, I want to mention an extraordinary program at Purdue University, the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program. With Teagle support that began in 2017, Cornerstone is taking root as a signature program at Purdue, where it is transforming the college experience for thousands of students. Under the leadership of History Professor Melinda Zook, College of Liberal Arts Dean David Reingold, and with the strong support of President Mitchell Daniels, Purdue is breathing new life into the humanities by bringing seminar-sized classes on “Transformative Texts” to the center of the General Education program.
In a remarkably short time, the Cornerstone program has reversed the trend among undergraduates, many of them STEM majors, to get through college with no exposure to major texts in literature, history, or philosophy. Not incidentally, it has raised morale among humanities faculty who find that they enjoy teaching first-year students. At a time when the academic job market in the humanities is sharply contracting, Cornerstone also holds promise to create teaching opportunities for future faculty (current Ph.D. candidates) by revitalizing General Education as a significant locus of humanistic teaching. We have high hopes that other institutions will take notice, and Teagle stands ready to help with efforts to replicate—or adapt and revise—the Cornerstone idea on other campuses.
The challenges are large, but our hopes are larger. I am privileged to work with a remarkable team of colleagues at the Teagle Foundation and with campus leaders throughout the country who are more dedicated than ever to the welfare of their students and to the future of our democracy.