Liberal Education

A Campus, Not a Sanctuary

The horror of the shootings at Virginia Tech has created an opportunity for us to think about the kinds of places we want our college and university campuses to be. The common view of higher education as a commodity leads many to think of faculty and staff as highly trained “service providers” and to expect campuses to be “sanctuaries.”

I think this common view of higher education is deeply mistaken. If a crisis occurs, a truly aberrant event, it encourages the rush to ask why a campus didn’t have more precautions in place, or why any violation of the sanctuary wasn’t immediately communicated. If we want our college and university campuses to be sanctuaries, then those are reasonable and expected questions. But I don’t believe that is what we should want our campuses to be.

Yes, colleges and universities must be places apart; but they also must be places connected to the community. They must be safe havens for the exploration of ideas; but they also must be places where ideas are connected to the realities of the world and to practices and actions in the world. Campuses should be reassuring and familiar, and they certainly should be expected to maintain at least reasonable standards of safety. But campuses are not bastions or armed camps. They are not, and they should not become, gated communities.

Whereas decisions about who can be let into a sanctuary are made before development, change, or transformation occurs, campuses are the very places where these processes are meant to occur. A sanctuary serves to gather homogeneity within a security barrier; a college campus emphasizes difference as a necessary condition for trust and makes community and commitment beyond self-interest possible. When a horrific, aberrant event violates this community and this trust on one campus, all of our campuses are affected.

To prohibit students diagnosed with depression from attending our colleges and universities—as some have suggested in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy—would be not only illegal but also just wrong. To create a profile of those who should be removed from campus based upon symptoms of depression would be to exclude nearly half of our students. (National studies show that over 40 percent of current undergraduates self-report having experienced an episode of depression sufficient to interrupt their studies or campus life.)

We must resist calls to make our campuses into even “tighter” sanctuaries. To do otherwise would be to concede that college and university campuses should be sanctuaries at all, and it would be to concede that, in light of recent events, they should become less penetrable, more homogenous, and more concerned about “protecting from” than “being open to.” In my judgment, we should instead use this opportunity to reexamine common views of what colleges and universities should do and be. What are the core purposes of an institution of higher education, and are those core purposes being served? Do the outcomes of our students’ experiences reflect the achievement of those purposes?

Attending to students’ emotional well-being, their own realization and definition of their potential, and their civic development is as much a part of the mission of our colleges and universities as seeing to it that students gain knowledge. We need to challenge the view that colleges and universities are essentially service providers, that they are places where a credential can be gained for social and financial advancement, and that they are or should be sanctuaries.

Education and the places that support it must be liberating rather than confining, yes. But that is not enough.

The expectations of students and parents, the intentional objectives of institutions, and the patterns of activity on campuses all must reflect a shared commitment to the integration of learning. Thus, faculty and staff must attend to students’ mental health and civic development. Through the Bringing Theory to Practice project, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Charles Engelhard Foundation, more than two hundred campuses have launched programs and explored what happens when colleges and universities do attend to these core aspects of higher education’s mission (see www.bttop.org).

The campus must be an arena where learning and discovery are valued; but it also must be the crucible where students experience transformation and explore possibilities for self-realization and for mental and physical well-being. And the campus also must be a place where students encounter their own privilege, discover their responsibility to build community, and deepen their own civic development. College and university campuses must work at being such arenas, such crucibles—and not at being or becoming sanctuaries.


Donald W. Harward, president emeritus of Bates College and senior fellow at AAC&U, is director of the Bringing Theory to Practice project.


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