2017 News Stories

Charles Dorn visits USF, gives historical perspective on 'crisis' in higher education

Charles Dorn presenting to students in the USF College of Education's TECO Hall

Bowdoin College Professor Charles Dorn, Ph.D., discussed a historical perspective on higher education and the challenges it faces today during a visit to the USF College of Education.

by Abby Rinaldi

There is a crisis in higher education.

At least, that’s what people are saying. As debates rage over tuition costs, student debt, curriculum, academic freedom and other hot-button topics, it might seem as though the end of higher education is near.

However, Bowdoin College Professor Charles Dorn, Ph.D, isn’t buying that idea. Dorn discussed this crisis in education and the history of higher education in a lecture at the USF College of Education in October.

In his presentation, Dorn discussed a historical perspective on higher education and the challenges it faces today, topics he writes about in his book “For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America.” Taking his listeners on a journey through higher education by turning a lense to some of its most trying times, he spoke of the U.S. of 1900, a nation that had just recovered from a severe economic recession and experienced dramatic social and political unrest, a situation that triggered what one might call a crisis in colleges and universities.

“So what does this crisis look like?” Dorn said. “Tuition costs are on the rise, leading some to fear that higher education is becoming a bastion of the privileged and the elite. The proportion of men enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities is declining and that’s leading some institutions to take the radical step of imposing a cap on women’s enrollment.

"Controversies over academic freedom are erupting on campuses across the United States and they’re being widely reported on in the press. Leading business figures have voiced concerns that students aren’t learning a whole lot, or at the very least that what they’re learning is irrelevant to the job market, especially in such rapidly changing and unsettled times. And all of this is causing quite a few Americans to wonder if a university diploma is still worth the cost.”

Higher education has been through many mini-revolutions in its past, Dorn said. Each time Americans turned a critical eye to established colleges and universities, new types of institutions were born.

“All of the institutions that we’re familiar with today actually grew out of shortcomings, both real and perceived, in the kinds of colleges and universities that came before them,” he said.

Colleges and institutions in the U.S. have always faced tension in their goals and missions, Dorn said. For all, there is the idea of private advancement for the students. On the other, the institutions claim to work for the common good.

“Our institutions exist to provide an education that directly relates to our students’ futures, including their future occupations, while simultaneously existing for the purpose of advancing the common good, and not students’ private advantage,” Dorn said. “You can call that a tension. You can call it a contradiction. You can call it a paradox … but that is the essence of higher education in America.”

This idea is articulated in the founding of Bowdoin College, alongside the institutions of Georgetown and South Carolina College (modern day University of South Carolina), Dorn said. These institutions had a curriculum that was primarily classical, a pedagogy based primarily around memorization and recitation and a highly regulated student life.

These institutions slowly became more selective and expensive over time. People began to question the curriculum and pedagogy of these established institutions and, not willing to wait decades for these institutions to integrate these demands, they made new institutions.

These new institutions, Dorn said, were practical in their curriculum. They focussed on education in agriculture, mechanics, mining and the military. These new schools included Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (modern day Michigan State) and California State Normal School (modern day San Jose State).

After the Civil War, Dorn said, commercialism rose in the U.S. and higher education changed as a result. When Stanford University was founded, at the time tuition was free, but the university was also the first in the nation to establish a College of Business and to begin commercializing intercollegiate athletics.

New institutions were founded also to serve previously excluded groups. Howard University arose to provide education to African Americans. The all women Smith College provided women with four-year bachelor’s degrees.

After World War II, another large change took place, Dorn said. College enrollment was up 227 percent and one-third of 18-24 year old Americans were enrolled in college. Community colleges start popping up all across the U.S. It is around this time, in 1956, that USF was founded as the first school designed to serve non-traditional urban commuter students. Dorn said it also provides an illustration of the accomplishments and tensions of the U.S. at that time.

“You’ve got a Cold War communist witch hunt on campus,” he said. “You’ve got conflicts over racial segregation and integration, and that’s particularly interesting at USF, because USF was often compared to Florida’s other public higher education institutions when it came to racial segregation and integration. You’ve got anti-Vietnam War protests. You’ve got free speech protests at USF. You’ve sort of got the whole range of events.”

USF was also caught in the tensions of a university attempting to serve the public good and the vocational training demands of its student population. Founding president John Allen had a civic-minded vision for the university while the students overwhelmingly expressed a desire for vocational training.

“American higher education is characterized by institutional transformation, reform and change,” he said. “There’s this constant concern that higher education must meet the needs of students in terms of access and affordability and relevance and certainly preparation for future employment, but there is a shared concern across time that these institutions meet the needs of the common or the public good,” he said.

Clifford Weyrauch, a social studies education doctoral student at USF, drove from Ocala after work to attend Dorn’s lecture. He approached Dorn afterwards to ask about the direction of community colleges as they start to offer higher levels of education than they did in the past.

“It seems like, talking to him, I get a better understanding of maybe this is the model for community colleges in the future,” Weyrauch said.

Chad Garcia, a doctoral student in the Educational Innovation program, said he thought the survey of history Dorn explored in his lecture was eye-opening.

“I thought it was a fascinating way to look at the way the university systems and the way that the community colleges have evolved over time and how seeing some of the challenges that they’ve faced in the past (are) still some of the challenges that we see today,” Garcia said.

At the end of his lecture, Dorn revisited the current crisis of American higher education. He sees problems, he said, but ones the country has seen before. He remains unconvinced, he said, that this is the end of higher education in the U.S.

“As long as higher education continues to maintain this commitment to the common good, these institutions are going to produce more than — I think — just knowledge that’s going to lead to the next great technological innovation or a workforce that successfully competes in a global marketplace,” he said. “I think that these places are going to become increasingly important over time. They will continue to foster personal advancement, but I think also they will continue … to promote the common good in some fundamental way. As long as they do that, I think they will continue to be relevant institutions in American society.”