New York Times Op-Ed: Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus., by Nick Burns:
Looking out the window of a plane flying over Boulder, Colorado, recently, I was reminded how much American universities stick out from their surroundings.
I’d never been to Boulder, or visited the University of Colorado’s flagship campus there, but even from 30,000 feet, I could tell exactly where it started and ended. The red-tile roofs and quadrangles of the campus formed a little self-contained world, totally distinct from the grid of single-family homes that surrounded it.
In urban universities, the dividing line between the campus and the community can be even starker. At the University of Southern California, for example, students must check in with security officers when entering the gates of the university at night. At Yale, castle-like architecture makes the campus feel like a fortified enclave.
The elite American university today is a paradox: Even as concerns about social justice continue to preoccupy students and administrations, these universities often seem to be out of touch with the society they claim to care so much about. Many on the right and in the center believe universities have become ideological echo chambers. Some on the left see them as “sepulchers for radical thought.”
These critiques aren’t new — for generations people have thought of American universities as ivory towers, walled off from reality — but they’ve taken on new urgency as public debate over the state of higher education has intensified in recent years. Ideology and institutional culture get frequent attention, but a key factor is often ignored: geography.
The campus is a uniquely American invention. (The term originated in the late 1700s to describe Princeton.) Efforts to create separate environments for scholars came about at a time when elite American opinion was convinced that cities were hotbeds of moral corruption. Keeping students in rural areas and on self-contained campuses, it was thought, would protect their virtue.
Though such ideas have lost their appeal in recent years, to this day American universities are radically more isolated from their surrounding communities than their European counterparts are. And being situated around a strongly defined central campus, often featuring trademark Gothic-style architecture, remains a point of pride for elite American universities.
But what students and faculty gain in the enhanced sense of academic community that comes from campus life, they can lose in regular interaction with people who don’t dwell in the world of the academy. The campus, by design, restricts opportunities to encounter people from a wider range of professions, education levels and class backgrounds.
Of course, students like to spend time with other students, and scholars associate with other scholars. And that’s good for education and research. But there’s no need to enforce a geographical separation from society on top of it. ...
Life at a university with a dominant central campus can also narrow students’ views on the world, especially at colleges where most undergraduates live on campus. Letting the university take care of all of students’ needs — food, housing, health care, policing, punishing misbehavior — can be infantilizing for young adults. Worse, it warps students’ political thinking to eat food that simply materializes in front of them and live in residence halls that others keep clean. ...
The university shouldn’t be made indistinguishable from other institutions. That would mean replacing its much-needed critical instinct with conformism and commercialization. But it badly needs more integration with society, and the best way to do that is to knock down some of the many barriers that separate it from the world outside.