Bates president keeps campus engaged in community

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Donald Harward recalls how in 1989, as the new president of Bates College, the local newspaper carried a short item about his appointment - and a big article about how Bates was an aloof, elitist island in economically depressed Lewiston, Maine.

Dr. Harward has been working hard ever since to reverse that sentiment. A key weapon has been one of the college's main assets: its students.

Under Harward, Bates was one of the earliest of hundreds of colleges and universities to have students work for credit on academic projects that also benefit the community.

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Bates students have served as education assistants in schools and done statistical background studies for the highway department. One senior's presentation recently persuaded a large national bank to contribute $100,000 toward scholarships for local residents to attend Bates.

Harward says that 15 years after service learning arrived on campuses, institutional self-interest that once was the overriding motivation for many projects is ceding to the idea that intellectual activities and doing good in the community go together.

As president of a small elite college - a $32,000-a-year school that is listed by U.S. News & World Report as among the top 50 liberal-arts colleges - Harward shared his views with the Monitor on a variety of current issues.

Where are town-gown relations headed in the new century?

Within higher education, I think there's a more thoughtful reaction and attention to place, in terms of responsibility to place. That's translated into what I would call, simply: What's the right thing to do? It's not an examination of just what's in our institutional self-interest. And that notion flows from what it means to be an educational institution and to recognize that learning has a moral dimension, an ethic.... While that sounds high-minded, what it really means is that the ethic of education has all to do with seeing the responsibility of the privilege of learning.

Has that changed the mission of institutions somewhat?

No. Educational institutions' primary mission is learning. But more than ever before, they're realizing that devotion to that goal brings with it obligations to its place, its situation, and to the people and community of which it is a part. There's always been a strong sense that colleges must be places apart. But the ivory-tower notion that intellectual activity must be separate, and values-independent, is changing. What we're now seeing is that colleges and universities can maintain this dimension of being contrarian, but also be engaged in the communities in which they are located. And that engagement translates to the acceptance of service learning as a compatible element of the legitimate academic and intellectual pursuits of higher education.

You're outspoken in saying that college is not an 'education business.' Is this outdated given the trend toward for-profit entities linked to universities and for-profit online universities?

Maybe it's quixotic, but I think it's important to plant a flag about going too far and too fast down that path. Because what you lose is the dimension of higher education that is, in fact, antithetical to, quite different from, not at all valued by, the world of business. We need to make the point that information transfer is not identical to learning. It's not even a condition of learning. It's a collateral phenomenon with learning.

You don't use the term 'consumers' when referring to your students.

That's right. I think it's misleading. Colleges cannot be, and should not be, consumer-friendly. That's not their role. To make you satisfied or have a good time is not my objective. My objective, hopefully, is to help you liberate yourself. And that's tough sledding. It seems to me our responsibility at educational institutions is more analogous to taking whatever you offer and giving it back to you and saying "you can do better." That's not a very consumer-friendly thing to do - the notion of challenging you.

But when parents and students complain more today about the value of a $30,000-a-year education, isn't there a growing reaction among college presidents that maybe they're right?

At Bates and everywhere else, we're a heck of a lot more attentive to outcomes than we would have been a decade ago. It's a legitimate expectation from students and their families that the college be able to find the kind of evidentiary basis for its claims - that in these undergraduate programs what we're doing is imparting a level of critical skill development and freeing students to become lifelong learners. We're all engaged in that rhetoric, but to find ways to point to what it is about the experience that they have paid $30,000 a year to have is important....

Bates and the top 100 colleges in this nation are only educating about 1.5 percent of the 14 million students in this country. But just look at the disparity between that and the outcome. Among those who accomplish professional degrees - medical or legal - there is a disproportional representation from those institutions. Something like a quarter of all PhDs have undergraduate degrees from those 100 or so colleges.

What's your perspective on college rankings - are they a useful tool or the bane of collegegoers?

The part I find regrettable to the point of being reprehensible is that rankings, as beauty contests, are so often skewed by the weighting of factors - primarily financial factors at the institution. And what the public reads is that these institutions are being ranked by their quality.... I do think rankings have a purpose. The market is responding positively to them. Their best use is early on in the process, helping a family and a student identify a range of institutions they might otherwise not have considered. But I don't see much of a point in them beyond that.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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