American colleges and universities have been the foundation of innovation and social change since the establishment of the republic. But what are their primary roles and responsibilities now, at a time when government is dysfunctional, society is fractured, and both domestic and international problems seem increasingly daunting?
The traditional roles of generating new knowledge and ensuring that students are educated to meet society’s challenges remain central. But precisely what knowledge and skills should students possess to deal with current challenges? And do institutions of higher education now have responsibilities to society that go beyond these traditional ones?
A liberal-arts education, in which students are trained to ask questions, to understand complex issues from many perspectives, and to work both independently and in groups, is still needed — now more than ever before. But it is far from sufficient. With the world facing challenges like climate change and terrorism, poverty and inequality, emerging transnational diseases, and technologically driven economic and social disruption, students must be prepared to apply their knowledge to solve unprecedented problems. And they must be trained to deal positively and productively with people unlike themselves.
It is becoming increasingly vital that colleges perform this latter role — service to both the local and national community. Students and faculty who engage in the real world, confronting immediate problems, and finding solutions to the intractable ills of poverty and injustice, environmental degradation, violence and despair, gain the vital intellectual and social tools necessary to solve current and future problems. Through these experiences they can become our new "extension agents," and our newly engaged citizens.
I have seen the power of university-based community engagement firsthand in northeastern Nigeria. From 2010 to 2017, I was the president of the American University of Nigeria, a private institution founded in 2005 and modeled on an American-style curriculum. In 2014, as the Boko Haram uprising to our north intensified, more and more hungry refugees poured into Yola, our city. We had to devise ways to feed close to 300,000 people — and we did.
In response to the Boko Haram threat, we developed Peace Through Sports, a culturally appropriate local peace curriculum for thousands of Muslim and Christian boys and girls who played together on integrated Christian and Muslim teams. Not one young person from that program joined Boko Haram.
In 2016, computer-science faculty and students, with U.S. government support, established Technology Enhanced Learning for All, a digital approach to teaching reading, which reached 22,000 out-of-school children — children orphaned as a result of Boko Haram, children with no schools or no teachers, children who have been displaced or are destitute. Students and faculty developed apps in the local language to teach English, and students in the multimedia program created and delivered a radio program as an integral part of the instruction. By testing children before and after they participated in the program, we determined that literacy rates had soared.
Our environmental-science students, faculty, and staff created new recycling techniques and taught unemployed women to turn plastic waste into salable products, creating new income and cleaning up the environment.
We learned that unless we became intimately familiar with the problems faced by the people we wanted to help, we were apt to ask the wrong questions and come up with the wrong solutions. For example, we assumed that most women wanted to learn about entrepreneurship; instead, they told us they first wanted to learn to read English, so they could read to their children. We were also surprised that young women, especially Muslim women in the community, would so eagerly join Peace Through Sports.
Students from a wide range of ethnic groups and dozens of countries learned to respectfully communicate and interact with people of different nationalities, cultures, backgrounds, classes, genders, religions, and political ideologies — a skill badly needed in the United States. They learned to develop the necessary intercultural skills to be better, more thoughtful and open-minded citizens.
Exploring new ideas and listening to others who challenge our beliefs and values is at the heart of academic life. This helps us to learn, to find answers to pressing problems, and to become effective citizens of the world. There is no place in a college for closed mindedness. The world is not a safe space, and any true engagement with the real world makes that immediately clear.
Learning to work together in teams and apply the knowledge gained in class to solve local problems is a model of community engagement that can be replicated anywhere. Strong collegiate leadership also is urgently needed, especially as President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate national service programs like AmeriCorps, Vista, and Senior Corps, thus depriving communities of educated volunteers, and the volunteers of the opportunity to learn the skills to become effective "extension agents." Colleges must fill that gap.
Institutions of higher education are already expanding service to their local, as well as to global communities. But in these perilous times, with the absence of leadership from the federal government and funding cuts looming for so many projects, I ask my fellow presidents to come together to establish nationwide engagement opportunities for American students and faculty to help repair the social fabric, expand access to education, and ensure that all can participate in the democratic process. It falls to us. The times demand nothing less.
Margee Ensign is president of Dickinson College and a former president of the American University of Nigeria.