Joseph M. Romero
Universities serve multiple goals: the purest pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; the formation of character; development of the whole person or individual capacities, especially critical thinking; preprofessional training; norming in a culture’s traditions and certification for transmission of that culture. In other ages, it was the path to the soul’s salvation. For millenia institutions of higher education have served the goal of producing qualified citizens aware of and ready to assume certain social responsibilities. Somewhere in here, occasionally, there has even been room for revolution, where universities actively contribute to social change.
In this paper, I will describe a movement in higher education that challenges and reorders the priorities of institutions less single-mindedly focused on identifying and providing solutions to the greatest challenge to our democracy, inequality. An anchor is an enduring institution, one that sees itself as permanent, who partners with other anchors to make a difference in the communities where they live. Often these are institutions of education, health, businesses, arts organizations, but also governments, community development corporations, philanthropies, and more. What kind of difference do they hope to make? They look to the needs of their communities, and while the U.S. is exceptionally diverse—urban, rural, more or less wealthy, varying concentrations of race and ethnicity—the problems are depressingly similar.
Too often, it comes down to race, though class runs a close second. Americans with darker skin and whose first language is not English have fewer opportunities for—and, consequently, disparate impacts in—education, housing, public safety, health, and employment. Anchor institutions are committed to providing opportunity through collective action, pursuing strategies to make a difference in these areas in accordance with their financial and individual capacities.
As an example of an anchor university I single out Rutgers University-Newark because, though many anchor universities do inspiring work, in my travels in 2017-18 as an American Council on Education fellow, where I was privileged to survey the higher education landscape from a presidential point-of-view, I saw nothing so ambitious as what Chancellor Nancy Cantor is doing at Rutgers-Newark. Picture a card-carrying member of the Association of American Universities and an arm of a flagship state university, there in the heart of Newark, New Jersey, too often used as a punchline rather than the name of someone’s home. Make no mistake: the challenges are real. Most of the labor force commutes into and away from Newark, while its residents are too often underemployed, less healthy, inhabit substandard housing, have access to emergency rooms but less often health care or grocery stories or safe playgrounds. The city’s school system has been the subject of well-publicized, and unsuccessful, efforts to reform.
Now picture that same institution fulfilling its mission as an R1 institution while expanding it to address the needs of Newark. They are making a difference. And they do so, quite openly, by tacking root causes: by trying to reconstruct an unreconstructed America.
The references to race and disparate impact are intentional, which brings us back to my theme: if higher education and its leadership is, finally, a quest for relevance, which we pursue in a variety of ways enumerated above—especially preprofessional programs—what could be more relevant than to identify and eradicate the barriers that prevent your neighbors from accessing the American dream? Surely there is more room for the case for relevance in higher education than future job security or new markets that can be exploited by the discovery of new technology and much else that is also part of our charge.
I leave Classics with two questions: in a university devoted to remediating the inequities of race and class—which are, too often, the same thing—what roles should the humanities play? Secondly, if not resistance or stasis, how can Classics lead the humanities in fulfilling these essential purposes of higher education in an American democracy, social justice and social transformation?
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