Colleges stress moral leadership

Ethical lapses in society are prompting universities to try to turn out students who are more socially responsible.

Higher education's mission has always stretched beyond academics. But how do colleges make concrete the stuff of vision statements?

Motivated in part by concerns about student cheating and broader ethical lapses in society, colleges and universities are increasingly exploring ways to prepare students to be moral exemplars and socially responsible leaders. As the world becomes more interconnected, they're also stepping up efforts to turn out graduates who are engaged global citizens. For example:

•At William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., students can now turn the required core liberal arts curriculum into a major by completing three "applied learning experiences" such as service learning, study abroad, and leadership on or off campus.

•Duke University in Durham, N.C., is in the pilot phase of a $30 million endowed program known as DukeEngage. The college will fund students' service projects for a semester or a summer and connect them with faculty and career counselors to integrate what they're learning into their overall education.

•The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in Washington, D.C., has created a consortium of schools to share experiences as they work to foster five key components of "educating students for personal and social responsibility": striving for excellence; personal and academic integrity; contributing to a larger community; taking seriously the perspectives of others; and ethical and moral reasoning.

Civic, ethical, and moral development "should be no longer optional" for college students, says Caryn McTighe Musil, the AAC&U project director. "We argue you cannot function in the world without this heightened sensibility."

Among last year's college freshmen, 67 percent said "the importance of helping others" was a high priority, the highest percentage in 20 years. That was valued just below raising a family and being well-off financially, according to last year's annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute in Los Angeles. Twenty-seven percent said there was a very good chance they'd participate in community service, up from 17 percent in 1990. And 35 percent rated "becoming a community leader" as very important or essential.

Projects like the AAC&U's are also building in attempts to measure whether various efforts on campus are actually leading to the intended outcomes.

More than 100 schools applied for 23 slots in the AAC&U consortium. Each receives a $25,000 matching grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Some of their plans include expanding academic honor codes to become social-values codes as well; hosting dialogues to explore community issues or philosophical questions; and having students host civics- or ethics-based workshops and contests.

Tying values-oriented goals to hands-on experiences has a powerful appeal for Amanda Dorsey at Duke. After taking classes in public policy and social entrepreneurship, she cofounded an organization called Student U., in which college students tutor local middle-schoolers.

This summer she was one of 90 Duke students who got funding during the pilot phase of DukeEngage. Conducting projects from New Orleans to Yemen, many of the students are sending blog entries to a central website (

"It was just incredible to have so much ownership over something," says Ms. Dorsey, who's about to start her senior year. "I've spent a lot of my time learning and being a student, which is great..., but it was really awesome to feel like I could actually use those skills now to do something meaningful."

Without the free campus housing and $3,000 stipend from DukeEngage, she says, she wouldn't have been able to participate. Within five years, the goal is to have 500 to 600 students – about one-quarter of the student body – doing DukeEngage projects, says director Eric Mlyn.

"We're making a guarantee to all students that, if you want to have an experience like this, we will fund it," Mr. Mlyn says. The Duke Endowment and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation each contributed $15 million.

"Instead of feeling like they have to do a banking or a consulting internship, [students] can see these other opportunities really visibly," Dorsey says. "It's ... a central part of what Duke's mission is now."

At William Jewell College, a small liberal arts school, students have long been required to take a core curriculum. The core aims to address "the big questions," says president David Sallee. "How should we behave? What can we know? What is real? We felt that by turning this into an opportunity for a major, we could say to people, 'This is very important in your educational experience.' "

The key is to tie the coursework to research and "reflective citizenship" projects involving study abroad, service, or leadership. The school can't fund projects, but helps students find funding.

"Our anticipation is we will have anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the class ... getting this major," President Sallee says.

As students head off to college orientation, many may find philosophical issues are as prevalent as futon sales. More schools are asking students to discuss life issues raised in, say, a summer reading project. And they're beefing up their presentations on academic integrity and community standards.

Carnegie Mellon, a research university in Pittsburgh, is piloting a program for about 700 first-year students to talk over issues such as: What is my aim in life? What is the purpose of work? Faculty volunteers will lead bimonthly group discussions centered on a book of their choice.

"Students have always shown an attraction towards discussions of this type ... [but] Carnegie Mellon is a very work-oriented place – students are pretty crunched," says Indira Nair, vice provost for education. But she hasn't had any trouble finding volunteers to lead discussions. "Most faculty, I think, feel that it should be a vital part of a college education."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Colleges stress moral leadership
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today