First in a series of how universities can help build character.

Critical thinking skills, long held to be the nucleus of a strong liberal arts curriculum, are essential. A number of institutions receive acclaim for their ability to teach critical thinking. Plymouth State University is in the top spot according to the Wall Street Journal. Evidenced in many ways, but without accompanying character, critical thinking without values may be short sighted. I will not erroneously attribute to C.S. Lewis the idea that education without values makes a person a “more clever devil.”  He never said that. However, he attributed nearly everything important in intellectual life to world views underpinned by character.

Work readiness important in contemporary society as more jobs require postsecondary training and education, should be part of each curriculum and program offered on-campus or online. Quinnipiac University boasts a 96% placement rate. Being able to contribute to a productive workplace or graduate study through knowledge that has utility is worthwhile to be sure. Individual productivity and worth may provide a means of support to an individual and the family, but leaves little social or community benefit absent good character.

Success in the marketplace of higher education has value. West Texas A&M University has evidenced record enrollments as the year starts. The University of Colorado has also grown remarkably in the last decade. Comparative success is valuable in the marketplace of ideas and skills. But no matter the rate of growth, if an institution does not help build the character of students, it is weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Some universities contribute to the joy of attendance with successful intercollegiate athletics programs. The on-campus and extended community, including but not limited to alumni, appreciate athletic competition. Harding University’s intercollegiate athletic programs are excellent. However, if athletic prowess fueled by wins and esprit de corps is achieved through chicanery, sleight-of-hand or a wink and nod with disregard for good standards of competition, the lack of character becomes a burden rather than a blessing. The luster from such ill-gotten achievement dims at the speed of light.

Social life through clubs, student organizations, fraternities and sororities and other engagements create a community of immersion and add value in the educational process. James Madison University is high on the list of the most social universities in the U.S. If such activities highlight the value of belonging to something larger than itself and contributing to a community, the university experience is enriched. However, if these organizations don’t build character, they create weakness, not strength.

Engendering character in students or building on the character they brought from homes, neighborhoods, farms, ranches or factories was challenging a century ago when homogeneity was high across the entering class. In today’s world, the heterogeneity of student populations is complex. There is no such thing as a “typical” student, and opportunities to help build character require a multitude of approaches.

One size fits one.

Currently, one in four U.S. college students is a single parent. How does the institution contribute to character building with a single mom or dad who is first in their family to attend college with attention divided by study, work and supporting a child or children? Texas Women’s University is noted for its commitment to single parents.

Universities that address this question and others related to an ever-increasing array of diverse students will be the most successful in preparing graduates for productive futures. Institutions increasingly train and educate for material success and jobs as the only, or highest, watermark. Without employment potential for graduates, the university is of low value. However, this by itself marks the institution as a trade school.

If institutional efforts don’t contribute to the character of every graduate, they are blemished, value to student and society are diminished and the worth of educational investment fades.

Measuring placement rates and starting salaries is much easier than measuring character, so that’s what we do. The impact of university education on individual character, whether a single mom at 40 or an entering freshman at 18, is a vexing question.

WT subscribes to six character-building values that have lasting benefits. In the coming weeks these will be discussed. They direct the work of WT, create character and guide us into the future.

If correctly orchestrated, core values in any organization, enterprise or concern help build character to all who come calling.

 Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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