The Distinctive Culture of a University

universityOur society is constantly trying to measure the distinctions among colleges and universities. U.S. News and World Report has made a fortune on its annual publication ranking our institutions. People watch these things. Most presidents talk about how these rankings don’t matter, until their school moves up a notch, and then they trumpet it to the world.

What do these rankings tell us about the distinctive quality of a college or university? Well, really, not much. You need to dig beneath the surface of all this measuring to find what you are really looking for. There are differences among our schools, differences that are defined by history, location, size, and most importantly by distinctive mission. What people are really looking for turns up in things that are more qualitative than quantitative.

In a post this past week on David Brooks’ new blog, he says this:

Characters in Jane Austen novels made incredibly fine distinctions between the different layers of the British aristocracy. In our age, we make incredibly fine distinctions between colleges and universities, measuring, say, whether Princeton is better than the University of Miami, or whether Swarthmore College is better than Rhodes College.

I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and I’m not sure these distinctions have any meaning. If you put me in a room with 25 students for an hour, I couldn’t tell if they were from Harvard or Arizona State. There are smart students all over.

But then Brooks makes the point I am always trying to make:

Colleges are distinguished most importantly by their cultures and personalities, not by anything that can be ranked by neat status rules.

“Cultures and personalities” of our colleges? Yes, that gets at it exactly.

What defines that distinctive “culture” of a college or university? Well, watch the way people treat each other. Are they vindictive and politicized, or are they caring and decent and polite? Are there constant tensions on the campus? Believe me, students will pick these things up, but U.S. News has not a chance of detecting this dimension of a campus distinctive.

Do students and faculty and staff and alums talk about a purpose that is bigger than themselves? Is there a driving, animating story right at the heart of the learning enterprise, a story that gives coherent meaning to education on this campus? Is there a story of what is true and good and beautiful to which all are drawn? Does the purpose of the university include the need to make the world a better place?

Our constant measuring of distinctives and status simply misses these deeper dimensions of a university or college. And this is the area where so many of our Christian universities, like Seattle Pacific, find their distinctive purpose and meaning. Would that we had a way of lifting out this deeper value, because this is the value that makes all the difference. I believe this is the kind of value people are yearning to hear.

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Categories: Character, Culture, Education

1 reply

  1. Thank you President Eaton for focusing attention on one of the fundamental questions for any University? “What are people really looking for? A qualitative difference in our world.”~ How then will the culture perceive such a difference? How can it be measured? What can we do to create such a difference so that the culture sees it? Research on how people show their support, or vote- as measured by dollars in response to University communication and fundraising efforts- showed that the public (in an enlightened self interest sort of way) supported Universities who proved that they changed the Quality of People’s lives. Universities that provided evidence on how they were changing the lives of Students, Local Community, Region, Faculty, or the World received the public’s vote of confidence- as measured by their giving. We have a great opportunity to make such a difference- through Education and Outreach/Service to change the Quality of our students, to “make disciples” of our students and communities, and through Research to change the Quality of Life of our community, region and the world.

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