Thorp explores how to rebuild partnership between America and its universities

Thorp collaborates with Buck Goldstein for 'Our Higher Calling'


Americans with a college degree earn more, participate in civic life at higher rates and even live longer lives. And yet today, many critics believe colleges and universities are not worth the cost and  that university researchers are out of touch with real-world challenges facing the nation.

In “Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and Its Colleges and Universities,” Holden Thorp, provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and Buck Goldstein, entrepreneur in residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dispel many of the myths surrounding higher education. But they also own where universities are failing students and communities and offer ways that university administrators, boards and faculty members can address the crisis. 

The book is the second from Thorp and Buck, who published “Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century” in 2015. That book argued that universities can better meet global challenges by adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. Many leaders in higher education came to embrace the idea, and today most universities have innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives.

Some readers also believed their first book called for universities to be run like businesses. Not at all, Thorp said. That’s why Chapter 3 of “Our Higher Calling” is titled “Students are not customers,” and Chapter 4 is titled “Faculty are not employees.”

“Academic freedom, tenure, shared governance — these things are all indispensable,” Thorp said. “From educating our young people to creating new knowledge, universities do many important things that cannot be measured but are of timeless importance.”

Here, Thorp shares how the higher education model is working and in what ways it can improve to better serve the public.

Your new book explores the breakdown of the partnership between higher education and the public. What triggered the current crisis?

Since Abraham Lincoln and the Morrill Act, there has been a strong partnership between universities and the public. Universities committed to produce ideas and educate students in exchange for academic freedom and extraordinary financial support. But, over time, some of the features of the pact have been obscured through some fault of our own. We have the habit of telling one side of the pact the parts they want to hear and the other side the parts they like. We will go to Congress and tell lawmakers “We will drive the economy and produce inventions and provide a skilled workforce.” Then we come back to the faculty council meeting and say “Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Just do your thing.”

Some critics argue that university research is disconnected from real-world problems. How do you respond to that concern?

We feel strongly that the continuum of research from the most applied to the most basic is important. You may say the public only cares about the big inventions. But we have not explained to the public where knowledge comes from, how it is generated and why it is important. It is true that applied research is easier to explain. But basic research is central to our mission and builds the foundation for innovation.

And yet, some faculty members hold a certain disdain for public intellectualism. And others are wary of engaging with the public given attacks on other academics. What is the incentive for faculty to engage with the public?

We don’t have internal incentives, but there is a global incentive to engage with the public. The health of the enterprise depends on it. Not everybody is going to be well-suited to do that, but academia has an obligation to explain to people what we are up to. Cultural institutions take this seriously. Even the best ballets perform “The Nutcracker.” They do this because they want to build audiences and understanding. We don’t do the same thing. We do a very poor job of explaining our research to the public. And we don’t put our research faculty in front of our introductory classes.

You return to the value of teaching throughout the book. How has your experience as a teacher impacted your view of the partnership between higher ed and the public?

Why are we here and not at a think tank or in industry? It’s because of the students. If we have the privilege of being in this environment where all of these exciting young people are, we need to make sure they are getting the best teaching and mentoring we can give. The public expects us to do this extremely well. And yet, historically, universities have done a terrible job of providing the training to support good teaching. At Washington University, I’m very proud of the work of the Teaching Center, and Michael Wysession(newly appointed executive director) understands how vitally important good teaching is.

But we also have a lot people here who think that you only teach if you are not a good researcher or you should never teach any intro classes. Well, I know our current chancellor and current provost have taught general chemistry to thousands of students, and our new chancellor has taught introductory classes in political science, so this university is run by people who think that teaching intro classes is an important privilege. 

You make it very clear that students are not customers and faculty are not employees. Indeed, you call faculty the conscience of the university. What do you mean by that?

It’s hard for some people at Washington University to understand this, but at most institutions there is a high degree of turnover. Even in the Association of American Universities, the average tenure for provost is three years. So administrators are coming and going. And students are coming and going. What is the constituency who will always be there? The tenured faculty. These are permanent institutions, and someone needs to be the permanent guardian of its values. Yes, at WashU, we’ve been very lucky to have administrators and trustees who have served for a very long time, but that is not the case at the majority of universities.

The book bemoans the higher education arms race in which universities compete for students by trying to best competitors with building nicer dorms and offering nicer amenities. What is the solution?

The short-term strategy for a lot of universities has been to try to catch up with a narrow set of competitors. A long-term strategy is thinking about what the institution is about, what we value, what our goals are and how we are different from our peers. 

Then you get into harder questions like what degrees are we going to emphasize. The public can’t afford to fund 2,000 institutions that are doing the same thing. In the book we pick a few colleges that are trying to do something different. There is Arizona State, which made inclusivity its goal and anticipated how demographic trends would change the applicant pool. And there is University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which focused on trying to be the most affordable option in the Boston region. When universities make hard decisions about what they are not going to do, they are rewarded. It’s a complicated question we will have to think about here.

You note that public universities are committed to the public good and the livelihood of the local community. But isn’t that also true for local universities like ours?

We are a global university with students from all 50 states and around the world. We want our research to reach every corner of the globe. So while St. Louis is in our name, it doesn’t define who we are the way Missouri defines the University of Missouri. But should serving St. Louis be among the most important things we do here? That’s an important question for us to wrestle with. My personal response is yes. Not only is it a way to build political capital, but it’s also a way to define who we are and how we are different. And for those of us who love this city, it’s a good way to define our institution.

Listen to Thorp and Goldstein discuss their book on North Carolina Public Radio.

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