Editor’s note: Vermont By Degrees is a series of columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.
Higher education in the United States is reeling from both the effects of a prolonged period of erosion in public confidence and from the unfolding impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This semester, campuses large and small around the nation were either shuttered or inexorably changed as presidents and faculty coped with the often competing interests of the health of their communities and the financial viability of the institutions they lead. It also revealed a truth: that for many colleges and universities, the business of education has become more important than the education itself.
While it is natural for college leaders to turn their attention to immediate threats, higher education cannot continue to be addicted to growth and consumption if we expect to address the contemporary problems we face in the United States. We must focus on preparing a generation with the knowledge, skills, and responsibility to contend with the ecological and social challenges they face, rather than simply being a source of training that robs our graduates of the futures we promise.
Throughout American history, academic leaders of colleges and universities have influenced important social and political movements. Founded by abolitionists, Oberlin and Berea were among the first colleges to offer African Americans a liberal education. Institutions such as Mount Holyoke and Hillsdale were among the first to assert that women should have a college education. Middlebury and Earlham pioneered language and cross cultural study abroad at a time of Cold War geopolitical polarization. LGBTQ rights were advanced from the campuses of Hampshire and Wesleyan. Landmark and Curry were early innovators in educational access for those with learning differences. The revolution that greatly democratized access to information was inspired by graduates of places like Michigan and Stanford, but also — for those who champion the role of small colleges, like many of the colleges in Vermont — the graduates from colleges like Reed and Harvey Mudd.
Here at Sterling College, our faculty and board of trustees have determined that the common good our small rural college should perform for society is to make education a force to advance ecological thinking and action. Our programs of place-based study and work for undergraduates and professionals are increasingly designed to be oriented to address fossil fuel dependence and rapid climate change, destruction of biodiversity and loss of wild places, persistence of structural oppression that impacts human and ecological wellbeing, and the deterioration of civil society through estrangement from community, nature and place.
Higher education has the capacity today to prepare a generation with the knowledge, skills, and responsibility necessary at this time of global disruption. Neither the narrow technician nor the uninformed idealist alone will be ready to address the critical issues facing humanity. For more than a half century in the Northeast Kingdom, our students have learned how to re-make agriculture from one of the most destructive and risky of human activities, to one that is regenerative and uses nature as its measure. Sterling was one of the pioneering outdoor education focused colleges in the country, teaching students to become leaders who advance appreciation for the role humans play in the natural ecological systems of which we are all a part. As a federally-designated work college, our students are an integral part of how we operate every day, which in turn makes our degree programs more affordable than a typical four-year residential college experience.
From our small campus in Craftsbury Common, we are working hard to extend our reach in the US and abroad. With support from a $3.5 million challenge grant from the NoVo Foundation, we established the Wendell Berry Farming Program in Henry County, Kentucky, to prepare farmers who understand how to build soil and build resilient communities. Even before the pandemic forced education online, Sterling College was embracing the power of online platforms to turn traditional “distance learning” into place-based, community-focused education. Our first offering “Surviving the Future” attracted 265 participants from 17 countries this past spring and we are offering it again to a global audience beginning this January. At the same time, we are in the process of co-creating courses dedicated to the regeneration of ecosystems, communities and local economies to serve the specific needs of audiences in Vermont, Bhutan, India, Puerto Rico, and England.
Our nation’s colleges were founded to serve the common good of communities of people. The best prospect for surviving an uncertain future may be the role that our institutions can play in directly serving our communities and society, rather than mortgaging their futures in pursuit of prestige and market share. Colleges and universities — public and private — should see the current challenges they face as an opportunity to reorient themselves to fulfill a common good that equips people with a bridge between thought and deed so that they can live meaningful and rewarding lives that could create and perpetuate a just and equitable civil society connected and inspired by humanity’s place in the natural world.
Matthew Derr is the president of Sterling College in Craftsbury.
Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.