Why we have (public) universities

Posted: November 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm, Last Updated: November 11, 2012 at 5:32 pm

As we continue the work of producing a new vision for the university, I was reminded of Louis Menand’s piece in The New Yorker: Why we have college. There are at least three (mostly implicit) theories that shape our narratives about the purpose of universities.

  1. Meritocratic theory: College is a four-year long intelligence test, a selection and sorting mechanism that separates individuals according to their capabilities and funnels them into careers that best match their talents. Courses are intended to test people’s various abilities, and diplomas and grades are signals to employers.
  2. Democratic theory: College is the place where citizens of all backgrounds are exposed to a common corpus of knowledge that supports a healthy democracy and makes us be what we are as a society. Courses provide every adult with a shared set of beliefs, norms and language. Grades are reward mechanisms that motivate people to do the work.
  3. Vocational theory. College provides the specialized training demanded by advanced economies in order to remain competitive. Courses are tailored to the evolving demands of the economy in different regions and grades provide professional qualification badges.

The reality of most universities weaves elements of these different theories together in various proportions depending on their legal and governance structure (private, public, for-profit), reputation, history, economic wherewithal, etc.

In the next few months we will be declaring George Mason University’s new mission and vision statements.  The university is grounded on a history of inclusion, innovation, and integration with our local economy.  We are proud of the fact that we have grown to become the largest public university in Virginia (theory 2), but also that our admissions standards have increased (theory 1) and that we’ve been able to respond and even anticipate the needs of employers in Northern Virginia (theory 3).

If you had to write our mission in a sentence, a statement that defined the very reason for our existence, what would it be?

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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