By Frank Wu
We have confused two propositions: we have come to believe that aspiring to greater excellence as an institution of higher education means striving to become the same as other schools. In particular, in the pursuit of higher rankings, we have confused excellence with exclusivity. Thus, it would be easy to search and replace the names and the logos from the viewbooks of most universities with that of their nearest rival, and no reader would be any the wiser. We have forgotten the value of diversity among institutions, even as we celebrate diversity within institutions. Yet the rankings are only an excuse. Even without surveys, too many of us seem to share exactly the same vision for our colleges.
One of the great strengths of the American system of higher education as a whole, however, is that it boasts such a range of offerings. If every public university tries to be one of the top 10 public universities in research funding, or every liberal arts college one of the most elite, we as a society and individuals will be worse off rather than better off. We will have forgotten the value of missions and access.
There are so many schools with unique identities: they are religious, historically black, single-sex, especially strong in specific disciplines, and so on. They have served distinct populations by giving more than a credential. They have become the center of communities. Even as mainstream institutions open up to all comers who are qualified, it is still worthwhile to have places where the minority is the majority, where an individual can be intellectually challenged without the burden of being compelled to represent a group. We may not always agree with the goals of such places, but that is exactly the point of having so many options. (We might be uneasy, for example, that the argument about institutional diversity was advanced by Virginia Military Institute in its unsuccessful effort, as a state school, to remain all-male; in part, the Supreme Court was skeptical that institutional diversity was actually a goal of the state. Nonetheless, there are institutions that contribute in a constitutionally permissible manner to institutional diversity.)
There have been so many schools that have balanced the importance of generating new knowledge with the responsibility to disseminate existing knowledge, but whose leaders face demands to shift toward research and away from teaching. All faculties claim to value both research and teaching, but the allocation of resources and the distribution of rewards shows that they are not valued equally. The mix is beneficial for all of us. There is nothing wrong with a school becoming more selective in its admissions, but there is something wrong with all schools doing so. Land grant schools and urban schools, among others, were founded to serve the public more generally and that vision remains worthwhile.
As Oscar Wilde once said, the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. Ironically, the would-be consumers of higher education of as product who would like to have exclusivity do not realize that most of them will be turned away if to achieve that cachet.
Frank H. Wu is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White; he was Dean of Wayne State University Law School and Professor at Howard University Law School.