All universities are a consequence of the cultures in which they exist. Simultaneously, however, universities continuously act to change those selfsame cultures. The philosophical bedrock on which public higher education in America is constructed comprises these conflicting causal relationships.
Seeking to change a world of which we are part is a noble and high calling. In order to achieve our potential and fulfill our mission of providing educational opportunities that ultimately allow society to be positively changed, it is imperative that our university embrace variety.
Excellent universities should vigorously pursue and deeply appreciate the fullest complement of cultures and views. Diversity produces vitality, and intellectual vitality produces educational opportunity. Having an array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds adds to the quality of the educational experience for all students, reflects reality, and is essential to a robust study environment.
Our university must champion this concept for two reasons.
First, it is right from a moral and ethical perspective. Universities are agents of public service, and the public good, and have a responsibility to serve all. Just as surely as biological diversity produces a strong ecosystem, intellectual, social, cultural, and ethnic diversity produce a strong university.
Woodrow Wilson said, in 1900 at commencement when President of Princeton, “One of the things that make us unserviceable citizens is that there are certain classes of men with whom we have never been able to associate, and whom we have, therefore, been unable to understand. I believe that the process of a university should be a process of unchosen contacts”. Wilson would fit in well at Southern.
A university of variety becomes a bulwark against ignorance, myopia, tyranny, and social incest, as surely as a homogeneous university stimulates them. Reflection is worthwhile. Our University was shaped as a ‘normal school,’ and later recast as a research university. Research universities are influenced pervasively by the land grant tradition, an outgrowth of the German polytechnics. The need to respond to changes in agriculture and industry, the change from draught animal agriculture and the industrialization of handicraft manufacturing, were the genesis of the Morrill Act that created land grant universities.
This Act, coupled with the need for an educated and proficient workforce, a need to move agriculture and industry into a new form to better serve human kind forced the recognition that learning needed to be “for the many” rather than the few. This led to a powerful and transformative manifestation of cultural egalitarianism. This notion continues to thrive at the best universities.
President Morris shared this vision for Our University and the concept that all people should have a chance, an opportunity, to change themselves. This vision is consistent with the Morrill Act, enacted by President Lincoln at the height of the War Between the States.
It states the purpose of public universities “… to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life”.
Second, our history and tradition is one of embracing, not excluding. As the nineteenth century drew to a close Southern graduated African Americans. Not popular, common, or welcome in many quarters of society but it was, and is, Southern. In the twentieth century Southern was barrier free before the greater society understood the Americans with Disabilities Act or the relentless challenges of being blind, deaf, or in some other way physically challenged.
University leadership realized the value of providing opportunity to those otherwise excluded, not by birth, or class, but by race, creed, view, disability or social status or distinction.
Education levels the playing field.
Southern has lived it in three different centuries. Universities become living artifacts of society and are appreciated by those who work, study and graduate from them for the opportunity they offer. Southern is a place where a great variety of views and life circumstances are lived, offered, discussed, debated, and examined… even when the views and illumination of differences may not be popular or comfortable.
It is our job.
A public university that reflects and responds to the population it serves will be better. It will nurture vitality in its community. Opportunity will be abundant in vital environments. The university will always be strengthened when we reflect and respond to those we serve.
It is who we are and who we must be.