Imagining an Educational Hybrid of ‘Utility U’ and ‘Utopia U’

Earlier this month, Professor Lisa Zurk, our new Associate Vice President for Research and Strategic Partnerships, gave me a copy of the September 13, 2015, New York Times Magazine, The Education Issue, “Collegeland.”

The Issue had over 10 articles, ranging from high cost college tuition, remedial education, campus architecture, and teaching Shakespeare. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, had an article in the “College Crossroads” section that caught my attention.

Appiah pointed out the tension of the distinct visions sometimes held of higher education:
Utility U. approach: “how college can be useful—to its graduates, employers and to a globally competitive America.”
Utopia U. approach: “college centers on what John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living’, aimed at getting students ready for life as free men and women.”

The former focuses on the financial viability of going to college, including “postgraduate earnings” or “increasing G.D.P.” The latter is “about college building your soul as much as your skills.”

An Either/Or?
Appiah states, “If Utility U. is concerned with value; Utopia U. is concerned with values.” He elaborates, “The values agenda can involve the content of classes, the nature of campus communities or both.”

My first reaction was what a disservice we do to our universities in fostering this dichotomy. In my 34 years as a university professor, 20 of these years in an administrative role, I have been part of countless conversations and read dozens of books and articles on the tension between art and science; liberal versus professional education; career-oriented majors versus ones that make well-rounded citizens.

As I delved deeper into the article, I discovered that Appiah did a nice job of arguing, “neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any campus.”

If we pit these views against one another (this versus that) we end up with one set of measures of success. If we view a university having both Utility U. and Utopia U. characteristics, we end up with a different set of metrics. In this age of accountability, higher education needs to make its position clear.

The draft of PSU’s new strategic plan has a position statement that does just that:

  • We are an anchor institution, providing the Portland region with a highly educated population, substantial economic impact, and distinctive contributions to its culture.
  • We contribute unique scholarship and research that support the quality of life through problem solving.
  • We deliver on our access mission, contributing to a highly educated and diverse community.

How we measure what counts will be a direct result of how we position ourselves. Our strategic plan makes it clear that PSU is not Utility U. nor Utopia U. but, rather, a hybrid of both.

How to envision the hybrid
When I find myself falling prey to the need to pick one of two contradictory views, I am reminded of the famous phrase from Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ book Built to Last: “The Tyranny of the OR vs. the Genius of the AND.”

It is an advantageous lens to view both the value and values of universities. It helps us explain to students, employers, taxpayers, legislators, employees, and families why:

  • Our students take a core of general education requirements
  • A liberal education matters
  • Interdisciplinary courses and programs have value
  • We want our graduates to get jobs and contribute to the citizenry of our state
  • We talk about teaching AND research instead of OR

False impressions
As provost, I understand the huge disservice to our students, faculty, staff, and community of striving to exclusively be Utility U. OR Utopia U., and am troubled when I hear accusations that administrators think all that matters is Utility U.

Much of education’s ‘Tyranny of the OR’ comes from a lack of clear understanding of what is taught in the curriculum, of what goes on in and outside the classroom, and the competition that disciplines face for resources. Getting to the AND is done by understanding, sharing, and valuing each others’ work and disciplines, and recognizing that it is not a zero-sum game.

To quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

As always, I welcome comments below on the ideas shared.


One thought on “Imagining an Educational Hybrid of ‘Utility U’ and ‘Utopia U’

  1. Hello Sona,

    Thank you for this insightful post. I think the topic of Utility U. versus Utopia U. is so relevant to the future of PSU that it deserves a more formal campus-wide discussion…perhaps as the topic of the Winter Symposium…or some other venue?



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