Recommitting to Our Compact: Blog by President Don Farish

As you are all aware, the state-based chapters of Campus Compact in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut merged into a single organization on 1 July 2017. This transition was underway for more than a year, and accomplishing the merger took a lot of work and an abundance of good
will.

While the formation of Campus Compact for Southern New England better positions the Compact to achieve its critical mission, it also occurs at a unique point of in the history of higher education.We all understand that campus priorities change over time, and most of us remain under very
serious budget pressures, causing us to examine every dollar of discretionary spending. However, I would like to offer my support for Campus Compact.

At the risk of inadvertently crossing a line into partisan politics, I note that higher education has not lived in such “interesting” times for many years. We are dealing with unknowns and uncertainties emerging from Washington relating to everything from travel restrictions on current and future international students; elimination of the Perkins Loan program, and the threat of decreases in Pell
Grants; the potential for the dissolution of regional accreditors and the substitution of accreditation by individual states; changes in Title IX enforcement, and the re-emergence of for-profit private colleges; the banning of members of the transgender community in the military, and the potential of Supreme Court decisions negatively affecting women and the LGBTQ community; and the gutting of environmental safeguards, just to name a few.

At the state level, legislation in New York and Rhode Island that eliminated tuition at certain public universities for certain in-state residents (the legislation is quite different in the two states) has both bolstered student enrollment at community college and state universities as well as negatively affected enrollments at some of the private institutions.

Locally, we continue to see an increase in student demonstrations for or against free speech, with what appears to be rising levels of violence, remains a tinder box, awaiting only a spark.

Economically, even with recently announced growth in mean family income, years of income and wealth stagnation, coupled with declining numbers of high school graduates in the northeast, have placed extraordinary pressures on campuses as regards achieving their targets for both enrollment and net tuition revenue, as families recognize that we have become a buyer’s market.

I could go on, but you get my point: this is a very challenging time to be in higher education.

The answer is not to hunker down and wait for the world to come to its senses. Now, more than ever, we need to reaffirm our commitment to be colleges and universities that serve the public good. For the most part, we are enthusiastically supported by our students and their families, who recognize the transformative power of higher education on the lives of those we touch. Yet too many people think that our value to society at large is limited to our students and their families—and were that actually true, we would lack anything like the critical mass of supporters we need to survive, let alone thrive, in challenging times.

Here is where the work of Campus Compact becomes not just meaningful, but essential, to us. Civic engagement and community-based learning works on so many levels:

  • It illustrates to students how theory they learn in the classroom is applied in the real world;
  • When the students work in teams, they develop an understanding that complex problems require multiple sets of skills—and that causes them to develop their negotiating skills, as they interact with their fellow team members with interests and expertise different from their own;
  • These students develop fluency in their disciplines, and confidence in themselves. They learn to deal with “clients”—and that means meeting deadlines and sometimes having to start again, if the client is underwhelmed by their first proposal;
  • Students with agency do better in initial interviews, and become more valuable sooner to the organization that hires them after graduation;
  • Veterans of community-based learning experience gratification when the community entity with which they are working is enthusiastic about the value of their work—and that encourages more of them, after graduation, to stay involved in the community, and to become the next generation of leaders;
  • And the organizations themselves that work with our students come to appreciate the value to their work that the presence of a campus with a community focus creates in the local area—and that widens and strengthens our base of support in a world where we need all the friends we can find.In short, the many challenges we see today, or imagine are coming at us from just over the horizon, can become crippling to our sense of progress and value as higher education institutions. The antidote is to double down on the many ways in which our presence enriches the lives of so many of those in our nearby communities, and to be perceived as we once were: as institutions first and foremost committed to the social good. Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to civic action, public service, and community-based learning, and to the social values imparted to our students, by virtue of our continued commitment to Campus Compact.

    Our strength is enhanced by a broadly shared vision that higher education’s primary mission is to
    serve society in as many ways as we are able.

Donald J. Farish is President of Roger Williams University and former chair of Rhode Island Campus Compact.