An Observation About the Mission of Higher Education

April 29, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

You will often hear people speak about the tripartite mission of colleges and universities: teaching, research, and service. I think that way of describing the mission of higher education institutions reflects a basic misconception.

Colleges and universities exist to serve the public. That is why all public and non-profit private universities are publicly subsidized—either directly or through tax exemption.

Colleges and universities do not, in other words, have three missions. They have one: service to the public. They achieve that mission through teaching and research.

That is why we should constantly ask how effectively the teaching and research of our colleges and universities are serving public goods. Are we teaching students—through the curriculum and the co-curriculum—in ways that provide them with the capacity for effective citizenship? Does our research answer questions of importance to humanity? Are we supporting the right mix of basic and applied research to guarantee our future capacity to serve public interests?

You might be wondering whether land grant universities are an exception to what I just said. After all, they have a service mission, typically embodied in an extension service. Nonetheless, land grants fit the model. At their founding, land grant institutions were expected to contribute to the economies of their states primarily by teaching students commercially relevant knowledge. Through additional legislation, agricultural experiment stations and extension offices were created. The purposes of these units were to conduct research and to teach people about the findings—service through teaching and research.

There are many implications of recognizing the unified mission of colleges and universities. One implication is that the units or positions we create to connect campuses to communities should be conceived primarily as brokers. These units don’t provide services to the community; they connect faculty and students with the needs and opportunities in communities beyond the campus. The people in these units need to understand those communities, but they also need to understand the faculty on their campuses—their expertise, their teaching portfolios, their strengths and weaknesses.

A second implication is that evaluations of teaching and research should involve assessing the extent to which faculty work is contributing to the central public service mission of the institution. Excellent teaching is teaching that prepares students to contribute to the public good. Excellent research is research that serves public interests (including the public interest in advancing basic science).

I will explore some additional implications—for the tenure and promotion process, for responding to state budget cuts, and more—in future posts.

For now, let’s just focus on a new formulation: The mission of our colleges and universities is to serve the public through teaching and research. If we get used to saying that, we will be more true to our enduring purpose and (to foreshadow those future posts) more effective in making the public case for higher education.