Higher Education Could Help Heal America

Some campuses, and college presidents, cultivate kindness, community, consensus
From left, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell, and Colgate University President Brian Casey.
From left, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun, Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell, and Colgate University President Brian Casey.

Americans are fed up with politicians. Understandably so, given the climate: inflation, investigation, recrimination, deterioration, polarization.

In 2016, voters rejected a former senator and secretary of state and instead chose Donald Trump, a reality television star/businessman who had never before served in government. Going into 2024, the impulse to turn to a non-politician-candidate is again strong. Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman has been pushing the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon. Another businessman, Vivek Ramaswamy, has entered the race and is getting some traction, outpolling senators and governors and even Vice President Pence. An environmental activist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been polling well, too; he has lots of politicians in his family, but the presidency would be his first elective government office.

Perhaps the different kind of leadership really needed to cure the country of its current malaise, though, doesn’t come from business or from environmental activism but from academia, which puts a premium on consensus and community-building. Success at the helm of a modern university features, in the best cases, a combination of intellectual rigor, innovation, listening, navigating diversity, sophisticated data analysis, decisive strength, awareness of the competitive landscape, civil negotiation of differences, and rootedness in values—all things we could use in Washington.

A politician with 65 percent of the vote is winning in a landslide. By contrast, a university president who has lost the support of 35 percent of the faculty, students, or members of the board of trustees is in big trouble. The recent resignations of the president of Stanford University, Mark Tessier-Lavigne, and the president of Texas A&M, M. Katherine Bank, attest to that. In national politics, unlike at universities, weakened leaders don’t typically leave; they linger on, until term limits kick in or they lose an election.

There are precedents for the elevation of presidents from colleges to the White House. After Dwight Eisenhower was a five-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, he served as president of Columbia University until January 1953, when he moved into the Oval Office. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University, then governor of New Jersey, before getting elected president. Eisenhower presided over what historians describe as the “age of consensus,” while Wilson championed the League of Nations, aimed at global peacekeeping. Shortcomings of both the Eisenhower and Wilson administrations in Washington are clear in retrospect, but the themes—consensus, nonviolent dispute resolution—remain relevant.

Who are the visionary higher-education leaders of today?

Exterior of Arizona State University
At Arizona State University, President Michael Crow doubled the enrollment from the 55,491 it was at when he took over as president in 2002.

High-Tech Growers

The high-tech growth that has been driving recent financial market returns is also a theme in higher education. The president of Northeastern University in Boston, Joseph Aoun, is so ahead of the curve that he published a book, Robot-Proof, about “higher education in the age of artificial intelligence” in 2017, years before the ChatGPT breakthrough. After taking office in 2006, Aoun shut down the school’s football team and opened more than a dozen satellite campuses, including in London, Toronto, Vancouver, California, Virginia, Seattle, Charlotte, and Portland, Maine (and opening in fall 2023: Miami). Families appreciate that the co-op work experience, part of a Northeastern education, puts students on a path to a paying job. Speaking to graduates this year, Aoun emphasized humane qualities: “For the foreseeable future computational power cannot express empathy. Microprocessors cannot comfort the afflicted.”

Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, recognized that with much of the higher-education action moving online, one way to broaden the university’s appeal was to make course content more accessible, less costly, and attractive to non-traditional students. A Harvard MBA who spent 20 years working for Amazon and other consumer-focused tech companies, Pulsifer has guided Western Governors to serve more than 200,000 students, graduating between 45,000 and 50,000 a year. He told the House Education and the Workforce Committee earlier this year that when he attended his first WGU commencement, many of the graduates “were in their thirties and often accompanied by both parents and children.”

Paul LeBlanc’s parents didn’t graduate high school, let alone college. His father worked in construction as a mason, his mother in a factory stitching car tops. They earned extra money cleaning houses, LeBlanc writes in his 2021 book Students First. LeBlanc himself paid his way through Westfield State College and Framingham State College by working construction in the summers. “It’s the classic American story of immigration, opportunity, and economic and social mobility,” he writes. Since 2003, when LeBlanc took over as president, Southern New Hampshire University has grown to more than 160,000 students from 2,800. Four-year tuition for an online bachelor’s degree in business administration is $39,600.

At Arizona State University, President Michael Crow doubled the enrollment from the 55,491 it was at when he took over as president in 2002. He also expanded the school’s racial and ethnic diversity dramatically, even after a state referendum banned the use of race as a factor in admissions.

Presidents from Politics

Ben Sasse resigned from the U.S. Senate to become president of the University of Florida. Sasse—a Harvard graduate who got his Ph.D. in history from Yale—only arrived in February 2023, but he’s already making some newsworthy hires. He brought economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach in as associate provost and senior advisor for academic excellence, and he lured William Inboden, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, from the University of Texas. While serving in the Senate, Sasse wrote a whole book about the idea of “community, friendships, and relationships” as the antidote to the crisis of loneliness and deaths of despair.

Mitch Daniels, as president of Purdue from 2013 through January 1, 2023, froze tuition for 11 years, saving families more than $1 billion. He experimented with income-share agreements that let students pay for Purdue with a percentage of their future earnings. He also expanded Purdue’s internet-based offerings, acquiring Kaplan University from Graham Holdings Company. Daniels came to Purdue with government experience, having served two terms as governor of Indiana and as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the administration of President George W. Bush. Richard Vedder, an economist and longtime critical observer of higher education, describes Daniels as “not only competent but kind and considerate.”

Also worth mentioning: a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts during Mitt Romney’s administration, Kerry Healey, who championed women entrepreneurs during a six-year stint as president of Babson College.

The Ivy Leaguers

Before becoming president of Brown University, Christina Paxson served stints at Princeton as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and as chairman of the Department of Economics. Her academic work focuses on social policy, especially involving children and health. She dealt with Washington and Congress on multiple issues, including a term as chairman of the Association of American Universities. Like Daniels, she was an early advocate of bringing students back to campus during the pandemic. At Brown, she has improved the campus climate in part by deliberately cultivating religious life. In a February 2022 interview with Bloomberg, she said that religion was an elemental part of the diversity she was seeking in recruiting incoming classes. She’s followed through with a broad range of initiatives that have made Brown, once a battleground, increasingly tolerant.

Also worth mentioning: Richard Levin led Yale through a growth spurt from 1993 to 2013, then was CEO of Coursera, an online education company that says it has served more than 113 million learners.

The Southerners

Much of the population growth and economic vitality in America has been moving southward. Higher education is no exception. Since taking over as president of Tulane University in 2014, Michael Fitts has doubled the endowment, renovated the campus, and made undergraduate admissions more selective. Star author and journalist Walter Isaacson joined the history faculty. Fitts talks about values in a countercultural way. “Malice and spite have infected politics, entertainment, and public discourse,” Fitts said in his 2023 commencement speech. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to live your life,” Instead, he advised, “Cultivate kindness wherever you go.”

At Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Dallas, Texas, President Michael Sorrell took a page from Aoun’s playbook, eliminating the football program. He turned the field into an urban farm, growing spinach and sweet potatoes. The school’s graduation rate has improved, and, in part because of a program that combines work and school, students are taking on less debt. Sorrell talks about “the four Ls of Quinnite Leadership: leave places better than you found them, live a life that matters, lead from wherever you are, love something greater than yourself.”

As president of Georgia State University from 2009 to 2021, Mark Becker helped to increase the six-year graduation rate by 23 percentage points while also reducing the average time to earn a degree by almost a full semester, saving students $21 million in tuition each year, the school says. Becker, now president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, has a doctorate in statistics, and GSU used predictive analytics and data to drive student success. A merger in 2016 with Georgia Perimeter College made GSU the largest university in the state.

The Northern Pandemic Leaders

For all the action in the South, some Northern schools and their leaders are also holding their own, handling the Covid-19 pandemic with unusual character. At Colby College in Waterville, Maine, President David Greene attracted national attention in spring 2020, when amid a national economic downturn, he launched a campaign to get a job for every one of the college’s 500 graduating seniors. “I am not aware of another college ever taking on such an ambitious effort for a graduating class, but we do things differently at Colby,” Greene said. “We know we are on this journey together, and we look out for one another along the way.” Greene, like Aoun, was early to the artificial intelligence trend; Colby launched the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2021. Applications for admission to Colby have soared to nearly 18,000 in 2023, up from about 5,000 in 2014. In 2022, the college acquired two islands off the Maine coast, totaling 500 acres; Greene said they’d become “laboratories for important research and places of quiet reflection and artistic creation.”

The president of Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York, Brian Casey, moved into a small college dorm room with no air conditioning for a required 17-day quarantine at the start of the fall 2020 semester. It made the point that both the students and the campus elites would be subject to the same pandemic rules. “It was actually kind of joyful. I was with the students and we were going through something together,” he told CNN, making a point about “common purpose. We’re saying we can only do this if we all do this together.” Casey is halfway to the goal of raising $1 billion for the university.

American higher education is far from perfect. Survey data such as a recent Gallup poll show public trust in higher education trending downward especially among Republicans. Even after the decline, though, the polls found that Americans still have more confidence in higher education than in many other institutions, which are also seeing declining levels of trust. The headlines focusing on research fraud, racial preferences, and student debt are obscuring a more positive story. On a number of campuses, civility and community are on the rise, and there seem to be green shoots of optimism poking through. Harvard; Stanford; St. Philips College in San Antonio, Texas; Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida; and California State University in Bakersfield are running an “Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership Fellowship.” There’s a bottom-up aspect of this, too, driven by student yearning for authenticity in an age of algorithms. The Wall Street Journal detects what it calls a “surprising surge of faith among young people.” Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, attracted 50,000 people to a two-week-long Christian revival.

College campuses, of all places, might help America shift the tone for the better. It could come through the presidents and faculty getting involved in government service in Washington, refreshing the tired political talent pool, either via the major parties or by the No Labels movement. Or it may arrive if students educated in some of these institutions take away not only the substance of what they learned but also something of the spirit.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com. He was managing editor of Education Next from 2019 to 2023.

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