Over the past couple of months I've written several times about problems with the vision of American higher education. Here I noted that strategic planning seems to drive institutions to look more like each other rather than helping them distinguish themselves, here that the thirst for prestige gets in the way of a serious focus on learning, here that too often campuses try to differentiate themselves on superficial grounds, and here that colleges and universities are not well-situated to respond to the big challenges facing the world today.
On this last point I should note the growing number of colleges that have realigned themselves to respond to climate change and the challenges of sustainability. The College of the Atlantic has been hard at this work for quite a while, as have, in less visible ways, schools like Sterling College, Unity College, and Northland College. All of these schools are doing great work. All of them are also quite small, but all of them have a powerful vision that helps shape the curriculum, learning, and environment of the schools.
I am deeply interested in the resurgence of religious mission in higher education (see, for example, Naomi Riley's God on the Quad, George Marsden's The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship , and Budde and Wright's Conflicting Allegiances) and with it the possibility that colleges and universities will return to serious education about the big issues in human existence. If this effort interests you, take a look at the vision statement for Houston Baptist University. HBU right now is a small but serious college about the size of Westminster. But in their vision statement they aim for nothing less that creating a world-class protestant university, one where all the efforts of the institution serve bigger ends--helping students lead meaningful lives, merging the best of secular and religious learning, and setting the example for other religious universities to follow.
Think what you will about HBU, or about their mission. But the ambition of the school, not for prestige for its own sake but to remake American higher education and American culture, is a big thing. Something all schools should think about as they seek to create authentic visions that stretch them beyond prestige, financial sustainability, and the latest trends in higher education.