For Day 1 of our experiment in creating a Cross Generational Community of Learning, our assigned reading is “The Blurring Line” by Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro.

Today’s discussant is Richard Dunn ’02. He comments:

What is the role (are the roles?) of universities in the United States?

I would argue that higher education is institutional, in the same sense that the military or the Supreme Court is institutional. It is straight-forward to describe what universities do, but the institutional aspect relates to what “the university” means. The military is the institutional form of bravery and honor; the Supreme Court is the institutional form of fairness and wisdom (quite a separate trait than intelligence); the university may be the institutional form of progress, discovery, honesty, truth, opportunity, etc.

What does the university mean to American society? What does Williams or Harvard mean to American society and to us? If universities establish society’s desire for the honest pursuit of knowledge, what does it mean when universities twist financial aid decisions? Surely universities are entitled to tailor policies, but shouldn’t these policies be explicit? And is the pursuit of knowledge antithetical to the mission of universities as the great equalizers in our very unequal society? How can a leading college like Williams be both a place that educates the “most talented” (I leave that to you to decide how talent is measured) and enables those from otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds to attain for themselves and for their children the advantages associated with a degree from Williams? Can it? Should it?

Should universities be meritocracies? How is financial aid a tool to accomplish the goals of the university and if you had to decide between funding merit or funding need what would you choose?

Good questions all. Many thanks to Richard for taking the time to read the article and for providing this start to our discussion. Others are encouraged to answer Richard’s questions in the comments and/or to provide their own thoughts on the article.

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