In the spirit of educating us all into better human beings, American Studies Department Head Andrew Delbanco–who’s been writing up a storm recently– convened a conference yesterday entitled “The future of Undergraduate Education: A conference on college: who goes? Who pays? And what should students learn?” Bwog correpondent Armin Rosen reports.

jjjColumbia College dean Austin Quigley introduced the conference’s keynote speakers by remarking that American Studies department head and conference organizer Andrew Delbanco could start an argument in an empty room. While this may be an indispensable skill for a scholar, after sitting through about four hours of speeches and panels (as an assignment for Delbanco’s class, incidentally) I’m not sure I would want to see such tendencies in higher-level college administrators. Of course, anyone in power should consider both pros and cons of a decision. But keynote speakers Mary Cantor and Alexander Marx, the presidents of Syracuse University and Amherst College, respectively, unintentionally demonstrated the tensions within higher education that they had been invited to discuss, morphing into case studies of the moral and practical dilemmas stalking American higher ed.

Cantor argued that universities are meant to fulfill the Deweyan creed of democracy as a “mode of associative living.” She explained that racial and social cleavages–as well as our failure to address them with a program of “restorative justice”–make it imperative that higher education “prepare people for participation in Democracy.” Cultivating citizenship is the highest purpose that colleges and universities can have

According to Cantor, most universities are bad at doing this, but not Syracuse. Let the orgy of self-congratulation and sanctimonious self-reflection begin!. A “culture of individualism” and the profit motive (she bemoaned the fact that families now look at colleges “in terms of a return on investment”) are eroding the institutional responsibility to connect students to humanity. And after taking a few obligatory cracks at popular targets like journalists and Samuel Huntington, she explained the many admirable steps her institution has taken towards engendering the “empathy of mind” in its students.

There’s rich irony in using yourself as an example of how best to negate the self-interested instincts that are poisoning society at its core. Cantor quoted a Syracuse senior who had done grassroots-level development work in South America as saying that her experience helped her realize that she was “connected to the rest of the world on the basis of humanity.” Fantastic. Such epiphanies are no doubt wonderful things to have. But should we analyze her experience–and Syracuse’s institutional motives–in terms of our culture of individuality, or in terms of the exceptional and exemplary culture of empathy that the ‘Cuse has apparently created upstate? In a culture that Cantor rightly explained as being woefully short on moral capital, should we really be assuming moral purity on the part of our universities?

One questioner, who identified himself as an employee of Princeton, pointed out that universities have a penchant for redeveloping entire neighborhoods, overpaying faculty and profiting handsomely off of faculty work. This question was mostly targeted at Marx, whose key-note address added little to Cantor’s, and whose only notable contribution to the discussion was a brief look at the hypocritical tendencies of American academia–which was, of course, prefaced by plenty of self-aggrandizing statements about Amherst’s diversity, selectivity and attempts at community outreach.

The Princetonian wasn’t impressed. Applying his logic to Columbia: a “global university” shouldn’t congratulate itself so long as it is still subjecting its students to an allegedly Kafkaesque disciplinary process. The two aren’t unrelated. And if American higher education is really so interested in applying pressure to itself, those are the kinds of discrepancies it should be resolving first.

The potentially crippling effect of institutional sanctimony was not lost on Delbanco, who would close things a few hours later by asking rhetorically whether or not his conference had been “feel-good self therapy.” He also brought up the constant conflict between institutional self interest and the interests of others, raising the possibility that, realistically, higher education can’t help but create certain negative social externalities.

For a scholar like Delbanco, this doesn’t exonerate anyone. And if Quigley’s characterization is accurate, then Delbanco, whose event did more towards exposing higher education’s deep insecurities than arriving at any definite solution to them, can count this a success.