Paul Pribbenow, president, and Harry Boyte, senior scholar, of Augsburg
Should higher education reject
elitism and return to solving real community problems?
A Civic Caucus
Interview February 20, 2015
Tom Abeles, John Adams,
Harry Boyte, Dave Broden (vice chair), Paul Gilje (executive
director), Sallie Kemper (associate director), Dan Loritz (chair),
Paul Pribbenow, Dana Schroeder (associate director).
According to Harry Boyte,
senior scholar at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, we must think of
colleges and universities as more than a private good, more than a
ticket to a job, but as a public resource. He believes that is the
legacy of the land-grant tradition, in which there was a great sense
of interactivity, partnership and collaborative work and university
scholars were seen as grounded in the public problems of society.
But he says that vision goes against the conventional wisdom of
higher education today, where elitism has become common, along with
detachment from community engagement.
Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow says
colleges can play a critical role both in equipping students to go
out into the world with a sense of agency, no matter what their
profession is, and in finding ways to be part of the community. The
fact that by 2020, 70 percent of the jobs in Minnesota will require
some type of postsecondary certificate or degree presents a
challenge that will require alignment across all postsecondary
institutions in the state. The schools, he says, must do what they
each do best, so they can be complementary to each other.
Boyte notes that our understanding of
science has shifted over the years, which has affected the whole
research culture in higher education today. That culture now prides
itself on being detached from the real world. This is an erosion, he
says, of the old understanding of land-grant research, which was
about the human condition and engaging with problems in the state.
He points out that only Massachusetts requires colleges to report on
their work in civic engagement. Pribbenow laments the fact that
Minnesota doesn't have a forum where higher education institutions
and systems come together to talk about collaboration.
Harry C. Boyte is
senior scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg College in
Minneapolis and a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's
Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is also visiting professor at
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. He is
founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Humphrey
School, which has merged into the Sabo Center for Democracy and
Citizenship at Augsburg College.
In 2012, he served as coordinator of the
American Commonwealth Partnership, a network of higher education
groups and institutions. The partnership was created at the
invitation of the White House Office of Public Engagement and worked
with the Department of Education to develop strategies to strengthen
higher education as a public good, including the national
deliberations Shaping Our Future and The Changing World of Work.
From 1993 to 1995, Boyte was national coordinator of the New
Citizenship, a cross-partisan alliance of education, civic, business
and philanthropic civic groups. It worked with the White House
Domestic Policy Council to analyze the gap between citizens and
government and to propose solutions.
In the 1960s, as a young man he was a
field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
which was headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Subsequently, Boyte
was a community and labor organizer in the South. He has a Ph.D. in
social and political thought from Union Institute and University.
Paul Pribbenow is president of
Augsburg College in Minneapolis, serving in that position since
2006. Previously, he served as president of Rockford College in
Rockford, Ill. He also has served as research fellow for the Center
of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College in Crawfordsville,
Ind.; dean for College Advancement and secretary of the Board of
Trustees at Wabash College; vice president of the School of the Art
Institute of Chicago; and associate dean of the Divinity School at
the University of Chicago.
Pribbenow serves on the board of directors
of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
and the executive committee of the Minnesota Private College
Council. He holds a B.A. degree (1978) from Luther College in
Decorah, Iowa, and M.A. (1979) and Ph.D. (1993) degrees in social
ethics from the University of Chicago. In 2008, he received the
Distinguished Service Award from Luther College.
Background. The Civic Caucus has
released two recent statements on human capital:
in September 2014
laying out the human capital challenges facing the state today and
in coming years and a
follow-up paper in January 2015
offering recommendations for maintaining a high quality workforce in
Minnesota. The Civic Caucus interviewed Harry Boyte and Paul
Pribbenow to get their perspectives on the role and purpose of
higher education during a time when the world of work is changing.
tradition imagined the University of Minnesota (U of M) as part of
the state, not just partnering with the state. (Note: The
mission of land-grant colleges or universities, created by the
federal Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, is to focus on the teaching
of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering,
without excluding classical studies, to farmers and workers, as well
as professionals. This new mission was a response to the industrial
revolution and changing social class. It differed from the historic
focus of higher education on an abstract liberal arts curriculum,
largely for elites. The University of Minnesota is a land-grant
university. For further discussion of the land-grant tradition and
its history, see the Civic
Caucus interview with Robert Kennedy in January 2015.)
According to Harry Boyte, senior scholar
at Augsburg College, early U of M leaders said that the University
was not the property of those in the university, but the property of
the people of the state. "There was a great sense of interactivity,
partnership and collaborative work," Boyte said. "Great scholars at
the University were seen as grounded in the public problems of
"How do we reinvigorate the older public
purposes, the sense that colleges and universities should be part of
the life of the society?" he asked. "In the land-grant case, that
was also strongly connected to a democratic purpose. Voting was a
piece of democracy, but democracy was a society we build everywhere.
There are signs of the revival of this purpose and mission at the U
of M and elsewhere to build on, but this goes against the
conventional wisdom of higher education today."
We must think of colleges and universities
as more than a private good, more than a ticket to a job, but as a
public resource. "That means recognizing and taking on the
detached research culture at the U of M and elsewhere and also
taking on the elitism that has become common in higher education,"
Boyte said. "We have a very elitist system and it's all over
schools' rankings in the U.S. News & World Report college
list. The rankings privilege exclusivity in admissions (the
more students rejected, the higher the rankings) and they also
privilege detachment from community engagement."
Through an initiative of the American
Commonwealth Partnership, organized in 2012 with partners including
the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums, and Campus
Compact in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill
Land-Grant Act, 15 or 20 conversations took place in Minnesota and
130 across the country that made clear the potential receptivity of
the broad citizenry to the public purposes of higher education. The
groups discussed what the purpose of higher education should be.
"That question was often met with astonishment," Boyte said.
Minnesota State Senator Dave Senjem told Boyte he'd never heard the
question of purpose talked about at the Legislature.
These conversations, Boyte said, offered
several options for the purpose of higher education: (1) preparing
the country to compete in the global economy; (2) working with
society on solving social problems; and (3) working on questions of
access and equity.
Narrow policy elites often make bad
decisions. "We need to bring the people into the conversation,"
Boyte said. The initiative, he said, found two important things: (1)
The general public worries that the discussion of higher education
is too narrow, that we're losing something vitally important as we
only focus on narrow preparation for jobs, and that higher education
used to be more connected to the problems of society and to working
with communities; and (2) People believe that students should be
prepared to be flexible, not just ready for today's jobs, but the
jobs of 20 years from now. Boyte said people were eager to hear
about the history of higher education's connection to its
Again working with the Kettering
Foundation and the National Issues Forums and Minnesota Campus
Compact, a design team was developed in Minnesota that prepared the
January 2015 report
Changing World of Work: What Should We Ask of Higher Education?"
The team included representatives of six two-year and four-year
higher education institutions in the Twin Cities: Augsburg College,
Century College, Hamline University, Metropolitan State University,
Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) and St. Paul
College. In preparing the report, the group gathered concerns from
hundreds of citizens addressing questions such as how colleges and
universities are preparing students for the job market and how they
can work with communities to shape the changing world of work.
Boyte said several themes came out of
Many people are worried about the changing world of work: Jobs
that are increasingly contract, temporary jobs without many
benefits or security; unsteady employment; technological change,
which could impact huge parts of the economy.
People feel there has been a narrowing of the understanding of
higher education. There was enthusiasm for the idea that higher
education can contribute to communities in multiple ways,
including not only preparing students to fit in, but also
preparing students to be agents of change.
People are worried about elitism. The land-grant tradition
believed in excellence of scholarship, but also in democratic
excellence. Democratic excellence is the principle that a mix of
people from different backgrounds can achieve greatness in the
context of high expectations in a way that a focus on a winnowing
process for the stars and the success stories can't. There is a
lot of public concern about "look-out-for-number-one" values in
America, focused on exclusivity, "the best and the brightest."
There is widespread worry that respect for everyday citizens'
talents and intelligence has declined, along with respect for
different kinds of work.
Higher education should be not only about
training students for jobs, but also training them to be innovators
and creators of different kinds of jobs. Boyte said the decision
to move the Center for Democracy and Citizenship from the U of M's
Humphrey School of Public Affairs to Augsburg College came about
because he believes Augsburg "really embodies the old land-grant
tradition, that a mix of students of all different kinds in a
challenging environment can achieve great things. We also thought
the faculty would be innovative in taking on initiatives to meet the
needs of communities in new ways. We've found Augsburg to be a great
fit in thinking innovatively about future leaders who can be change
Colleges should think about all of their
assets as resources for the community: their buildings, their
purchasing power and their convening power.
Colleges have tended to go the
meritocratic, elitist route. Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow
said during his 14 years as a college president, he always thought
what Boyte had just described to be "what colleges are all about."
He said the public has not held colleges accountable.
Colleges can play a critical role both in
equipping students to go out into the world with a sense of agency,
no matter what their profession is, and in finding ways to be in the
community. "Augsburg has tried to find ways to be in the
community," Pribbenow said, "to be there alongside of our neighbors.
We're in the most diverse zip code between Chicago and Los Angeles.
It's a powerful classroom for our students to learn in and for us to
illustrate what a democracy college can be. That's led us to
innovation in ways we're equipping students for particular
professions and careers. It's also led us to a real passion for the
notion that it's about more than the job they have. It's about the
kind of life they lead and the leadership they provide in their
neighborhoods, their communities and the organizations they'll be a
part of. That's at the heart of being the kind of college we want to
Boyte pointed out that Augsburg is the
most diverse private college in the Midwest. Pribbenow added that
Augsburg is the second most diverse of all higher education
institutions in Minnesota, behind only Metropolitan State
Augsburg is a pilot site for employer
advisory councils for its career center, its faculty and its
professional programs. Pribbenow said the college brings
business to the table to learn about what future trends are going to
be and what Augsburg can do in curriculum, in internship
opportunities and in experiential education that will respond to
those trends. "We're already a place that has a deep commitment to
experiential education," he said. Augsburg uses a lot of adjunct
professors of practice, who come out of industry and bring that
experience into the classroom.
Augsburg is in constant conversation with
the corporate community about their needs, Pribbenow said. He
pointed to Augsburg's development of a joint nursing program with
MCTC as a direct response to the college's participation in a
dialogue about Minnesota's health-care needs.
Pribbenow said Augsburg asked Wells Fargo
for a gift to support a new capital project at the college. The bank
was intrigued that the college is such a diverse institution and
that it's preparing the type of students who are going to be needed
by places like Wells Fargo in the next decades. He said that led the
bank to change its funding guidelines to honor institutions that are
preparing the kinds of students they're going to need in their
workforce. "That led me to understand that you can capture the
imagination of business by the kind of institution you're becoming,"
By 2020, 70 percent of the jobs in
Minnesota will require some type of postsecondary certificate or
degree. "That's a challenge," Pribbenow said. "That's going to
require alignment across all the systems: MnSCU, the University and
the private colleges." He feels the higher education systems were in
better alignment in Illinois, where he previously served as a
college president, than they are in Minnesota.
"We're all created to do what we do best,"
he said. "If we do what we do best and it's complementary to each
other, then the overall system works." Through the MnSCU system, he
said, there is a real need for the two-year colleges to meet the
needs of businesses in different parts of state.
"What St. Paul College and MCTC are doing
is a direct response to the needs of the neighborhoods, especially
along the Green [light-rail] Line," Pribbenow said. "That's being
done in limited ways without a conversation across the system about
how to align things and not be redundant with each other." He noted
the Augsburg is directly across the street from the U of M, yet they
don't share residence halls or arts facilities. "We've created
redundancies across the state that don't really respond to efficient
use of resources," he said.
Every institution of any kind in Minnesota
has had a richer, deeper sense of democratic mission and purpose
that has eroded and needs to be recovered. "The same is true of
higher education," Boyte said. One of the interesting things, he
said, is the shift in our understanding of science documented in
Science, Democracy, and the American University, a new book by
Harvard historian Andrew Jewett. Before World War II, most
scientists didn't think of themselves as value-neutral. "They saw
themselves as democrats bringing practices and values like
cooperation, belief in inquiry, free discussion and testing ideas in
practice," Boyte said. That understanding of science shifted
dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, to a belief that
science should have nothing to do with humanity and should be
value-free and detached.
"That affected the whole research
enterprise in higher education in a bad way," he said. "Now there
are cultures of research that pride themselves on being
uncontaminated by the world, so they're observing the world, not
participating in the world. That is a great erosion of the old
understanding of land-grant research, which was about the human
condition and engaging with problems in the state. But there are
important examples of science reconnecting with its democratic
roots, like colleagues at the Institute for Child Development at the
U of M who are working on what is called 'Executive Function,'
skills of self-control among children."
Boyte said we must build on such examples,
reconnecting with the sense of purpose to the research, teaching and
scholarship we need. "I don't think this is detached from the
interests of business," he said. He will soon address the annual
Gates Foundation conference on higher education on the questions,
"What would it mean to recover the older, democratic purposes of
higher education and to bring them back? What kinds of leaders are
the students going to be? How are they going to impact the nature of
jobs in the businesses they create?"
Augsburg is involved in a project called
Anchor Institutions, a collaborative of nine colleges and
universities and seven health-care institutions along the Green
"We're trying to find
ways," Pribbenow said, "to model how together we can solve
neighborhood problems, create more workforce development, help to
build more businesses in those neighborhoods. It's hard work,
because every time you come up with a great idea, somebody will put
up an obstacle. That's the challenge. There's certainly no magic
bullet. It's no wonder the public is skeptical of our institutions
if we don't provide any evidence that we're thinking about how to
Collaborative practices can be seen as
civic skills. Boyte said new understandings of child brain
research by our U of M colleagues and others show that kids can
develop skills for self-direction, for controlling their reactions,
for paying attention, for focusing on goals, for becoming
intellectually nimble. These are predictive of their life success.
"These are civic and democratic skills," he said. Kids should learn
the skills of self-control. They also overlap with skills of civic
agency, capacities to work across differences with different kinds
It's important to make sure faculty
members understand what's expected of them in advancing the
college's mission. Pribbenow said at Augsburg, "from day one,
we're trying to make sure the faculty understands that. At a private
institution, especially of our scale, it is possible to bring about
alignment between mission and the kinds of expectations we have for
hypercompetitive norms that dominate in higher education immediately
disadvantage kids from working-class, minority or first-generation
backgrounds. Studies from the Kellogg School of Management at
Northwestern University show that "they hear such norms as an attack
on their values, which are much more interdependent, collaborative
values," Boyte said.
Teacher education today across America
includes virtually nothing on the new brain research on infants and
children. "There is an important opportunity to increase
knowledge in teacher education about how kids learn to be
self-directed and in control of their lives, and also how kids learn
to work with others who are different," Boyte said. We need to
integrate bodies of knowledge in more holistic ways, he said.
The big constraint to collaboration and
change is the rankings of colleges in places like U.S. News &
World Report. In 2003, according to Boyte, the new president
of Syracuse University tried to bring the democracy idea to the
University. She wanted to change the admission standards so that
students who graduated from high school in Syracuse would be able to
go to the University for free.
A group of disgruntled faculty members
thought these changes meant that Syracuse was losing its chance to
be like Harvard and Yale, Boyte said. By 2011, Syracuse had moved
from 40th to 62nd in the U.S. News
rankings. The Board of Regents decided to investigate the slide in
rankings, so the president left. The new president no longer makes
any mention of community engagement, Boyte said.
Massachusetts, and specifically Boston,
has a lot of collaboration among higher education institutions.
Pribbenow said that there are leading examples of consortia there,
along with many ways of doing things together. He pointed out that
undergraduates at the five colleges in the Associated Colleges of
the Twin Cities (ACTC)-Augsburg, Hamline University, St. Catherine
University, University of St. Thomas and Macalester College-can take
courses at any of the other colleges. The group also does joint
purchasing, which saves millions of dollars a year. "We have pieces
of it," he said, "but we haven't found a way to talk about it that
has the power you find in a place like Massachusetts."
Boyte added that the Massachusetts Higher
Education Council is the only state agency in the country that makes
schools accountable to report on their work on civic engagement.
Minnesota doesn't have a forum where the
various higher education institutions and systems come together,
Pribbenow commented. He believes such a forum could help in
collaboration, if it had the right kind of authority, mission and
When the U of M did away with its General
College a decade ago, a lot of the students started coming to
Augsburg and St. Catherine because they were equipped to make
college accessible and affordable for them. Augsburg became one
of the first places in the state to admit undocumented students,
Pribbenow said. Forty percent of the school's incoming students each
fall now are students of color. "We've become the place that is
responding to demographic shifts," he said. "It's actually changed
the nature of our day-to-day life on campus. This is a deep
Pribbenow said Augsburg has 50
full-time-equivalent staff members working in areas related to
student success: remedial needs, emotional challenges, learning
disabilities, and recovery from addiction. "If we admit them, we
have to believe we can help them be successful," he said. "That
means making the investment to provide that help."
Boyte called that a shift in framework
from thinking, "How do we make students college-ready?" to "How do
we make colleges student-ready?" "We see the most innovative schools
in the country asking that question," he said.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman