Higher Education's Social Role

Journal of Higher Education, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Higher Education's Social Role


Introduction to a JHE Special Issue

Higher education's role in society has changed and evolved, matching the trends and emphases of public life. Usually reacting, but sometimes initiating change, colleges and universities have been shaped by and have played a part in shaping the surrounding society. This issue of JHE is devoted to understanding those interactions. As background for the articles in the following pages, one can analyze these relationships over seven decades, as revealed in the earlier issues of the Journal of Higher Education. First published in 1930, the journal was essentially the only journal devoted to higher education for its first forty years. It also served as a kind of Chronicle of Higher Education for that same period, featuring news and editorials about current topics in higher education. It is thus an ideal source for understanding scholarly views of the changing role of higher education in society. The articles in the 1930s reveal colleges reeling from the depression and reacting to growing international tensions. Th e 1940s found colleges coping with wartime stresses, the return of veterans, the GI Bill, the Truman Report, and the consequences of the United States' emergence as a superpower. Many of the articles of the 1950s dealt with higher education's move to accessibility and mass education and the related subjects of community colleges, open door admissions, and adult education. The increasing role of research was a frequent topic. The 1960s found colleges and universities struggling with issues of social justice and civil rights, while their own students criticized them as anachronisms. In the 1970s these discussions continued, but in a more institutionalized way, with issues of affirmative action and gender coming to the fore. The role of the large federal and state flow of funds to higher education was reflected in discussions of mass education, financial aid, and accountability. The 1980s suggested that there are similarities between colleges and universities and other organizations, as discussions of professors as professional employees and research as an economic enterprise appeared. Colleges were depicted less often as special unique places and more often as social units that needed to demonstrate their value. Perhaps that disenchantment led to the retrenchment described in the 1990s and increasing concern with the economic impact of higher education.

Throughout this history, higher education has usually reacted to social forces. In contrast, in the 1960s colleges and universities were the locus of social change for civil rights, freedom of expression, and antiwar activity. In more recent times, higher education itself has become a major economic power and the source of most scientific and technological progress. Partly because of these roles, higher education is increasingly seen by many within it as well as by the public as another social institution, valuable, but with no unique privileges. These historical trends lead to questions that form a backdrop for the articles in this issue: How involved should colleges and universities be in social problems? Their role could vary from activist participants to dispassionate analysts--where should they be on this continuum?

Considering that most colleges are supported directly and indirectly by public funds, what is the legitimate role of the public, as represented by governmental officials, in influencing the policies of higher education institutions? …

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