What are universities for?

The proposal to change the Wisconsin higher education system mission statement that Governor Scott Walker claimed was simply an error in his budget document restarted discussion of the mission of public higher education.  This discussion seems to be polarized along one unnecessarily narrow direction:  Should public higher education institutions be primarily preparing students to meet the workforce needs of the state in which the institutions are located?

The answer to this question is clearly “no”.  The mission of public universities is to prepare students for opportunities to succeed and contribute to our society, whether those opportunities exist in the same state as a given public institution or not.  While members of the Florida Board of Governors occasionally grouse about spending state resources to educate a new engineer who then leaves the state to take a job elsewhere, I consider a well-educated chemical engineer who takes a job in Texas instead of Florida to be a success story.

But when we educate a student in a field in which the opportunities are limited (or worse), are we doing our job correctly?  At the very least, those who are educating students in fields like music performance or creative writing should be asking themselves whether they are doing everything they can to give their students the best possible opportunities to make it economically in the world as it is, and not as the faculty may wish it were.  After all, it seems likely that worrying about where one’s next meal is coming from or how the rent is going to be paid would dampen the quality of one’s musical performance or writing.  And sending a hopeful student into a situation in which the probability of being self-sustaining is vanishingly small seems to me to cross some ethical line.

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