Fidelity to purpose one key to college strength

What an asset it is to a college or university, like an individual, to recognize and value its own identity. This institutional assurance and the direction it sets is evident in a recent speech by the president of Boston University, the published history of a consortium, and a conversation with a college president.

John R. Silber, president of Boston University, speaking to fund-raising executives March 14, said: ''The identity crisis in the colleges and universities . . .is simply a reflection of the culture in which we live.

''The colleges and universities must decide whether we will go with the cultural drift of our age, measuring the decline in our civilization by the decline in our expectations for our students and for ourselves, or whether we will resist this current and set much higher standards and different directions in curriculum and requirements, which will set us apart as a city upon a hill, as institutions that stand for something.''

Dr. Silber predicted: ''In the next two or three decades, colleges and universities that function with a cultural center, with a core of principles, with a system of values that has been incorporated into the life of the institution, will have the best chance for survival. Moreover, they will deserve to survive. . . .

''We cannot sell our institutions on the basis that they are unique or significantly innovative. The university that is unique and genuinely innovative is almost certainly fraudulent. As the inheritors and transmitters of civilization, we cannot be innovative without being essentially in error. What shall we teach? A science and mathematics that never existed? A history that never existed? A literature that was never written?

''The fact is that most colleges and universities are essentially alike in what they teach and what they stand for. Some are better than others, but all are significantly alike. And, in many of the least known and least considered by those who review institutions for quality, will be found persons of extraordinary dedication and quality of mind who are worthy inheritors of the Socratic gift, of the gift of Abelard, persons who teach with comprehensive knowledge and erudition and with moral purpose and integrity - and who inspire generations upon generations of their students.''

Historian Judith Lakin Elkin has described in ''The Great Lakes Colleges Association, Twenty-One Years of Cooperation in Higher Education'' (published in 1982 by Great Lakes Colleges Association, 220 Collingwood, Suite 240, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103) the successful initiatives, false starts, disappointments, and dreams that characterize the GLCA consortium of 12 private, church-related, residential, liberal arts colleges in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The member colleges are Albion, Antioch, Denison, DePauw, Earlham, Hope, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, Wabash, and Wooster.

She considers one of their strongest links the similarity of their founding by 19th-century Protestants concerned about the moral and academic education of young people growing up on the frontier as America moved westward. Their purposes were clear, as indicated in a report presented at the first meeting of the Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Oct. 20, 1822, which is typical and which led to the eventual establishment of DePauw University:

''Next to the religion of the Son of God your committee (should) consider the light of science calculated to lessen the sum of human woe and to increase the sum of human happiness. Therefore we are of the opinion that the means of education ought to be placed within the reach of every community in general, so that all may have an opportunity of obtaining an ordinary and necessary education.''

Notes Dr. Elkin: ''The nature of the individual colleges, and of GLCA collectively, is . . . compounded of traditional attitudes as adjusted to modern social forces. . . . In all the colleges . . . a concern for the religious dimension impels a view of the student as a whole person, including moral and spiritual growth.''

The concerns with which the consortium has wrestled are noteworthy: international education, off-campus programs, faculty development, Washington representation, and governance.

It is significant that these colleges for the past 21 years have cooperated closely on a variety of projects, but all 12 have preserved their independence through mutual respect and what Dr. Elkin calls their ''salient characteristic, '' their inner-directedness. This is perhaps another way of saying that they recognize and honor their own identity.

This same celebration of institutional identity permeated a recent conversation with Dr. Richard Warch, President of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He dsecribed that institution as one of the ''educational anchors'' in higher education. Rather than jumping on every new bandwagon in higher education, Lawrence has remained faithful to its commitment to liberal arts and a strong music conservatory.

Our national penchant for progress, innovation, and uniqueness may sometimes obscure our debt to those institutions which, loyal to the intent of their founders, choose to remain transmitters of our national and cultural heritage. Undoubtedly those shepherding such institutions have frequent temptations and strong incentives to reshape them to fit changing times, but here are three stabilizing utterances that indicate awareness and appreciation of the special identity of some special institutions.

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