Address by David Mathews, honorary degree recipient
July 1, 2012
© David Mathews
I appreciate the opportunity to give your commencement address. It is an honor to be a part of an occasion that’s so meaningful to so many people, particularly to the faculty. those who teach can’t show the results of their work because the results are largely intangible. They can’t show the numbers of goods produced, the amount of money gained, or the volume of merchandise sold.
The results of what faculty members do is sitting here in front of me. It’s in the graduates’ ability to think critically, their capacity to learn how to learn, and their commitment to make a constructive difference in the world. all of These are as invaluable as they are immeasurable.this is also a happy occasion for your friends and your family who rejoice in your accomplishments. and it’s a time that you can say to yourself with pride—and perhaps a sigh of relief—I’ve done it!
I’ve always thought of the commencement address as the last lecture of your academic career, something free and extra added to what you’ve paid for. it’s somewhat like the toaster you used to get if you opened a bank account. I’m not sure that’s done anymore, and I never got a toaster, although I always wanted one. it seemed a nice bonus. think of this address as your toaster.
A good lecture should give both the lecturer and the audience something to think about, maybe something that they haven’t thought much about before. This lecture is about Augsburg College—and about you. Up until this point, you have probably been focused on what Augsburg can do for you. now it’s time to look at what you, and perhaps you alone, can do for Augsburg. I’m not talking about donations to the alumni fund, although there’s probably an envelope for that attached to your diploma. i want to talk about the mission and the purpose of Augsburg, about the future of this college, and how you can help shape that future.
Today, The mission of colleges and universities is being shaped by pressure to prepare students to get good jobs at the lowest possible costs. The reasons are obvious. a college degree is essential to most high paying CAREERS, but the students who earn these degrees often graduate with heavy debts. i don’t need to say more because many of you probably have outstanding loans. I understand that the average debt in Minnesota is nearly $30,000 per student. And average tuition costs around the country have gone up more than 400% in the last 20 or so years. that compares to a 250% increase for what we think of as runaway costs in health care.
As a result of the debt and the rising costs, there is a great deal of emphasis—and understandably so—on greater cost effectiveness in colleges and universities. Peter Heegaard has an excellent book on that subject, and I refer you to it.
I applaud the effort to make our institutions more cost effective. it is the key to access.
But that effort can imply—surely UNINTENTIONALLY—that the purpose or mission of higher education is just to educate individuals for their personal success.
What’s wrong with that? Well, in a sense, nothing is wrong. we all profit when each individual does well, But there may be consequences to adopting such a mission that don’t appear at first glance. and that’s what I hope you will think about a bit with me.
Two potential problems come to mind. one could affect our country. In the first instance, the role of higher education historically has been that of an engine for change in America. I remember talking to some Russian friends at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And I asked them why they were in such a rush to make all their changes at once. “why not slow down and build a base of support for the reforms you want to make?” I asked. One of my Russian friends explained, “our country only gets an opportunity for change every hundred years, so we have to make the most of the moment. But the United States is constantly changing.” That’s true; America is constantly changing. and higher education has been part of most all the great changes in our country.
Academic institutions began to take on this role during the revolution when colonial colleges became what British loyalists called “SEMINARIES of sedition.” the Revolution wasn’t just about gaining independence from the English crown; it was about creating a new kind of country, about writing a new chapter in history. And the slogan for that mission was, Novus Ordo Seclorum, latin for “a new order of the ages.” maybe the founders were overly ambitious, perhaps even a bit arrogant. nonetheless, the slogan is part of the American dream, and it’s still on the back of every dollar bill. check it out.
One of the main engines for creating a new order of the ages was establishing the state university system. these institutions were to foster democratic values; the values in the Bill of Rights,such as freedom and justice.
By the 19th century, the great cause was creating a more inclusive society. free public schools were established. the abolition of slavery became a substantial movement. And working Americans, farmers and mechanics, argued that if elites controlled higher learning, working folks would always be second-class citizens. The engine to prevent that was a new type of land-grant university, the agricultural and mechanical or A & M university. That designation still appears in the title of some of these institutions.
This connection between higher education and America’s great causes continued in the 20th century with the founding of colleges for African Americans and Native Americans.
The point is, that higher education has been shaped by—and has helped shape—the great changes in American society. the academy’s role has not been limited to preparing individuals for good paying jobs! in fact, because of this history, colleges and universities were expected to give a civic dimension to the careers of graduates. it was a UNIVERSITY president, Francis Wayland at brown, who made the case for an education that not only prepared entrepreneurs for the economy but also graduated citizens who had a deep sense of social responsibility. the guiding precept was that a capitalistic economy could only exist in a moral order—otherwise greed would triumph.
The question today is, If higher education no longer plays this historical role as part of the country’s great movements, “Who will?”
The second problem affects academic institutions. it comes from economic pressures that may change not only the mission of colleges and universities but also their very character. There’s already a widespread perception that higher education is just another business, more concerned with its bottom line than educating its students. unfounded? certainly. yet trends have been eroding the larger mission of higher education for some time. as early as the 1970s, Earl Cheit, a dean of one of our leading business schools, observed that, “Review procedures, regulation, [and] litigation now command so much attention from college and university officials, it is easy to forget that, for most of its history, higher education in the U.S. was a movement, not a bureaucracy.”
Now, what does all of this have to do with you and with Augsburg College? (We are getting into the homestretch. The lecturer is winding down.)
Let me tell you of a story about a meeting in the White House earlier this year. (A meeting in the White House sounds impressive; actually it was in a temporary metal building hidden between the old Executive Office building and the White House proper.) The meeting was about colleges and universities that wanted to continue their historical mission, continue to be part of the great causes of our society, AND Not become just businesses and certainly not become bureaucracies.
Augsburg was not just at the White House, but also in the front ranks. In fact, Augsburg is one of the leaders in a movement to combine cost effectiveness with civic engagement. For example, led by its president, this college was the inaugural host for a project launched at that Washington meeting—The American Commonwealth Partnership, which is a nationwide effort involving More than a thousand institutions. some of The members in this partnership are now sponsoring public forums on the mission of colleges and universities using a deliberative guide prepared for National Issues Forums. The effort is to find out what citizens think the role of colleges and universities is beyond preparing graduates for successful careers.
as you know, Americans are not just concerned about the economic system; they are concerned about the political system. Many people have lost confidence in that system and feel pushed to the sidelines, unsure of how to make the difference they would like to make. They worry that we have lost our moral compass. These concerns are fueling another great and enduring cause, which is to give citizens a stronger hand in shaping their future and the future of this country.
Augsburg’s involvement in this cause is not limited to what happened in Washington. On this campus, there are many related projects, such as the deliberative-based dialogues in the arts, the peace initiative, a program to look at the civic role of nurses, and, the one I am most familiar with, the Public Achievement program, which is a civic program for young people that emphasizes not just service but actual involvement in community problem solving.
The challenge that Augsburg and the other institutions face in continuing to serve the great causes of democracy is what someone has described as AN 800-pound gorilla in the room. most All of the attention in higher education nowadays is understandably on economic issues, ON economic pressures. The larger mission, the historical mission, is way down the agenda. If you look at the topics for most trustees’ meetings, for example (present company excepted), the issues are primarily financial. the problem isn’t that civic engagement is invisible. it is usually mentioned in every institution’s literature. yet the gorilla is generating most of the pressure.
This is where you CAN come in. The only colleges and universities that are going to be successful in remaining part of the great movements in American history will be those where the alumni and trustees understand and support what the institution is doing. That is why Augsburg needs you, both in support of the college and to lead a natural initiative redefining the role of alumni.
So in conclusion, I wish you every success and personal achievement in your chosen careers. I also wish you every success in public achievements in the life that you and I share together as citizens.
You’ve survived the last lecture. Congratulations!