Higher education in the United States is reeling from both the effects of a prolonged period of erosion in public confidence in the contribution colleges and universities make to the development of a civil society with just and equitable opportunity for all and now from the unfolding impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This semester campuses large and small around the nation were either shuttered or inexorably changed as presidents and faculty coped with the often competing interests of focusing on the health of their communities and the financial viability of the institutions they lead.

It is unsurprising that college leaders have turned their attention to the immediate threats. Doing so has been entirely justifiable given the impact on the integrity of our institutions presented by the rise of national populism over the last four years and the unremitting catastrophe associated with the pandemic. Humans, like other primates, are better – though clearly not perfectly – equipped to address near-term threats to our well being than we are to multigenerational threats like changes to the climate or, on the part of higher education, the gradual comprehensive change to the environment in which our institutions live and that the present crises should starkly illustrate.

Higher education does much good and can do much more. Our nation’s colleges were founded to serve the common good of communities of people. The best prospect for surviving an uncertain future may be the role these institutions can play at this critical juncture in adapting their missions to address contemporary purposes that overtly and directly serve our communities and society and not principally those of individuals and corporations. If civil society – left or right leaning in orientation – and any economic system – capitalist or socialist in orientation – it will require a recognition that they must justly serve us all and higher education should play a foundational part in fostering the fundamental changes that address the existential threats to democracy and those presented by our current political and health predicament.

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

Horace Mann, President of Antioch College, 1859

Whether inspired by spiritual beliefs or philosophical convictions, important social and political movements have been influenced by academic leaders of colleges and universities throughout American history. Founded by abolitionists, Oberlin and Berea were among the first colleges to offer African Americans a liberal education and institutions such as Mount Holyoke and Hillsdale were among the first to assert that women should have a college education.  Middlebury and Earlham pioneered language and cross cultural study abroad at a time of Cold War geopolitical polarization, LGBTQ rights were advanced from the campuses of Hampshire and Wesleyan, Landmark and Curry were early innovators in educational access for those with learning differences, and the revolution that greatly democratized access to information was inspired by graduates of places like Michigan and Stanford, but also – for those who champion the role of small colleges, like many of the colleges in Vermont – the graduates from colleges like Reed and Harvey Mudd.

Higher education cannot continue to be addicted to growth and consumption and address the contemporary problems we face in the United States and hope to regain public confidence in the role we fulfill for society. If colleges and universities continue to be the source of training and inspiration for an extractive economy that robs our graduates and the communities in which they live of the futures we promise, while failing to give them the education they need to contend with the ecological and social challenges they face, we will betray our obligation to this and future generations. The seizure of the planet’s natural wealth for financial gain must become a moral concern for college and university presidents and trustees. It is worth noting the, zoonotic, animal origins, of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, resulting in the loss of and dislocation of the lives of millions of people is attributable to the encroachment of people into wild spaces and the deterioration of our appreciation for the role humans play in the natural ecological systems of which we are all a part. 

Here at Sterling, our faculty and board have determined that the common good our small rural college should perform for society makes education a force to advance ecological thinking and action to foster an increasingly just and regenerative relationship with each other and the natural world. While longstanding, Sterling was one of the pioneering outdoor education focused colleges in the country. Our programs of place-based study and work for undergraduates and professionals, are increasingly designed – including our online offerings – to be oriented to address fossil fuel dependence and rapid climate change, destruction of biodiversity and loss of wild places, persistence of structural oppression that impacts human and ecological wellbeing, and the deterioration of civil society through estrangement from community, nature and place.

Among the issues we have also identified is the promotion of harmful agricultural practices that threaten human and natural communities. With support from a $3.5 million challenge grant from the NoVo Foundation, we established the Wendell Berry Farming Program in Henry County, Kentucky to prepare farmers who understand how to build soil and build resilient communities, just as we have done for more than a half century in the Northeast Kingdom–– to re-make agriculture from one of the most destructive and risky of human activities, to one that is regenerative and uses nature as its measuring stick. If higher education ignores the challenges rural agrarian communities face, the very communities in which so many colleges are located, it will do so at its own peril as evidenced by the effects on our institutions and our students and graduates of the polarization illustrated in recent elections and the erosion of confidence in us by large swathes of the United States public.

Higher education has the capacity today to prepare a generation with the knowledge, skills, and responsibility necessary at this time of global disruption. Neither the narrow technician nor the uninformed idealist alone will be ready to address the critical issues facing humanity.  The same is true of higher education as an enterprise. Colleges and universities – public and private – should see the current challenges they face as an opportunity – perhaps a last, but a nonetheless profoundly compelling chance, to reorient themselves to fulfill a common good that equips people with a bridge between thought and deed so that they can live meaningful and rewarding lives that could create and perpetuate a just and equitable civil society connected and inspired by humanity’s place in the natural world. 


Filed Under: Blog Matthew Derr