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Wash U provost outlines big challenges, remains hopeful about future of college in America

Washington University Provost Holden Thorp is the co-author of "Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges and Universities."
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Is the purpose of college to prepare for a career or to pursue learning and knowledge as inherently worthwhile endeavors?

That question isn’t a simple one to answer, and its tensions thoroughly inform a new book, co-authored by Washington University Provost Holden Thorp, titled “Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges and Universities.”

“Part of what we are advocating is that we do a better job of telling sort of both sides – the folks on either side of this tightrope – what’s really going on,” Thorp said in a conversation with producer Evie Hemphill on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Alongside co-author Buck Goldstein of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Thorp starts out the book exploring some contemporary myths about the state of higher education before diving into some real challenges that need to be addressed.

One of those challenges has to do with drastically differing perceptions among various stakeholders when it comes to the value of a college education and how successful graduates are upon earning a degree.

The book notes that while most individuals involved in higher education consider college graduates well prepared to enter the workforce, just 11 percent of business leaders believe this to be the case.

“We need a resonance between these two groups so that we can get people together around our common interests,” Thorp said.

He noted that the U.S. government has partnered financially with institutions of higher ed since the end of World War II, with the launch of the GI Bill and the decision to start funding research at universities.

“The partnership is that the federal government and state governments that are supporting state universities provide a lot of support for research and they stay out of the day-to-day decisions about what research gets done and how teaching is done,” Thorp explained. “But the problem we have is that we haven’t told each side the full story.

“We go to talk to politicians and we say, ‘Oh don’t worry, we’re going to train a workforce for you, we’re going to start companies that produce jobs in the local area, we’re going to develop real estate and create jobs in St. Louis or wherever it is.’

“And then we go to the faculty council meeting and we say, ‘Don’t worry everybody – we got you covered, we’ve got academic freedom, we’re going to protect tenure, we’re going to ask you to help us run the university.’ And both sides have a fair criticism, which is they’ve never really had it explained that there’s this partnership there.”

Thorp and Goldstein emphasize in the book that colleges and universities are not businesses and that students are not customers – and that educational institutions shouldn’t be run like businesses. At the same time, they urge higher-ed leaders to face up to big challenges ahead, particularly financial ones.

“What we’re pointing out here is this disconnect that happens when people see, correctly, that there are significant problems with the financial model here, and they think that the right way to fix that is to get folks who have been in the business world and turned around businesses to come try to fix these financial problems in universities,” Thorp said on the talk show. “This doesn’t really work very well, because the customs and traditions and principles that we have around how to deal with knowledge and faculty are very foreign to a lot of business leaders.

“And so what we’re saying is that a lot of different people are going to need to collaborate to make higher education sustainable in this country. And it’s going to require the folks that come at this from the business side to understand the indispensable elements of colleges and universities, and it’s going to require us to do a better job of getting our community to see that these financial and political, frankly, problems that we have are ones that we can’t just ignore.”

While “Our Higher Calling” focuses on many current and looming challenges for both public and private institutions, Thorp remains hopeful about the state of higher ed.

“I still believe firmly – and I wouldn’t be able to get up and go to work every day if I didn’t – that America’s colleges and universities are an extraordinary force for good, that they’re institutions that have enormous staying power – have been around for almost a thousand years,” he said. “And one of our points is that we don’t agree with the people who say that there are some disruptive forces that are going to radically change higher education.

“Some other people who write in our genre [write about] ‘the end of college’ and things like this. We actually don’t believe that there’s going to be radical change in colleges and universities, because if you look at the history, as we try to outline briefly, it’s all more or less going in the same direction – that overall people believe that a college education is an important part of becoming an educated citizen and that the knowledge that we created is incredibly important.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.