An Academic Apology

April 8, 2019

American Higher Education's most recent black eye resulted from the revelation that entrance into our elite universities and colleges could be purchased. This story is particularly disturbing because it goes to the heart of our vision for higher education.
Throughout much of our nation's history, a college education has been viewed as the great leveler. It provides opportunities for everyone to advance beyond their current circumstances and fulfill their true potential.
Not only are the nation's colleges and universities viewed as a path to personal advancement, but they are considered a public good, enabling our country to educate its populace to meet the challenges of an uncertain future. 

The dual dream of personal advancement and providing a public good is made possible by the concept of meritocracy - the conviction that the path to advancement is achieved through hard work and not through privilege.
This is what makes the most recent finding so damaging to the American higher education system. It threatens the idea of meritocracy - the very foundation upon which higher education stands.
Despite these recent events, I believe that higher education remains a public good, remains a path for personal advancement, and, for the most part, remains a meritocracy. We need only look to the academic landscape of Albany's Capital Region to make this case.
We have an amazing ecology of schools that support the region and the nation in an impressive number of ways. We have universities and colleges, both public and private, religious and secular, who provide liberal arts and professional educations that support the dreams and aspirations of students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
We provide degree programs from associates to bachelors to doctorates. Our educational options include hands-on practical experiences as well as in depth domain knowledge. We develop skill sets both traditional and emerging. We accommodate students from different educational backgrounds and strive to meet their needs. And while we are proud of what our region has to offer, there are certainly many other regions across America that can boast of a similar educational landscape.
The late Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, wrote a book called "The Creation of the Future." In that book, he describes how colleges and universities "create the future." First and foremost, colleges create the future by educating the next generation. The knowledge and skill sets that our students acquire enable their future career paths and populate the professions throughout our communities.
A second way colleges and universities create the future is through discoveries, inventions, and creative works arising from both faculty and students. These efforts lay the foundations not only for new technologies but also for new world views. 

Higher education also strives, sometimes with difficulty, to create a neutral forum for framing the issues of the day. This allows us to capture the zeitgeist and provide a deeper understanding of the context and complexity of the present era. The creation of the future means higher education is simultaneously a public good and a means for personal advancement.  
This latest scandal is not just a problem of a few individuals at a few elite schools that have gone astray. It reflects a deeper social and perceptual problem - namely, we have come to view the "brand" of the college as the key to personal advancement. We need to take this opportunity to reconsider what constitutes an "elite" college or university and how they serve us.
I would argue that the colleges and universities of the Capital Region, and those like them, are the real elite schools. They are educating the next generation in a variety of professions. They are providing access to a wide range of students. They are providing students with research and creative opportunities to fully express themselves. And each of these schools, in their own way, is creating a dialogue on the human condition. These colleges are elite, not because of their brand, but because of what they do for students.

Greg Dewey, Ph.D., is President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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