Where Do We Go From Here?

Richard Guarasci
President, Wagner College
Past President, CUMU Executive Committee

As we await the outcome of an historic presidential election there is a significant probability that the current national political stalemate will endure. If that is the case, where do we go from here? How do urban and metropolitan universities address the numerous challenges that surround us and our local communities? What role can CUMU play in leveraging our collective and local assets toward bolstering our institutions as well as our commitments to racial justice, economic opportunity, and civic prosperity?

Surely national policy and legislative support combined with progressive presidential leadership could reshape much of the menu of choices available to higher education and our local neighborhoods and community partners. It is an unlikely prospect. We face some difficult times ahead. What is imperative is the birth of a new politics founded on the alliance of higher education and our local communities uniting around the democratic values of social equity and community advancement. As urban institutions, we live with the daily realities of economic inequalities, increased immigration, racial segregation, gentrification, globalization, and health inequalities attached to voices too long silenced or ignored. Our campuses, public or private, suffer from resource shortfalls in meeting the needs of our students, faculty, and our local communities. Added to this bleak reality, we are seemingly trapped within a punishing national narrative that characterizes higher education as merely a transactional commodity, reducing higher education for private personal gain and ignoring our origins as a public good.

If ever urban and metropolitan colleges and universities needed to rally around one another it is now. The urban space underscores our similarities in mission and locality, but higher education is notoriously politically inept in unifying across the artifices that divide us. Caught in an era marked by rank competition and the misbegotten pursuit of prestige and infantile college rankings, we let ourselves be divided and easily defeated politically. Our disaggregation trumps our common purpose and consequently we limit our political influence and popular support.

I believe that our future progress lies with the current revival of our civic mission. All of us in this Coalition share a common educational genus of sorts. Each of us was founded with definite civic responsibilities. The urban privates were directed to educate the whole person where the civic was always an essential element of a liberal education. The comprehensive urban institutions often were thought of as critical vehicles for the broad assimilation of new immigrants. Community Colleges have explicit responsibilities to the civic welfare of their urban communities and obviously so do all the urban publics. As members of CUMU we share today a bond around this civic work in all its manifestations from direct service, comprehensive neighborhood partnerships, key public scholarship, and the deployment of the arts in service of those whose voices are forgotten or silenced.

Now we need to redouble our collective efforts across our institutional and geographical distinctions. CUMU is a critical asset for us as we bond around the civic work. For our institutions to flourish, we must play an essential role in building solutions to the vexing problems deeply challenging our institutions and our communities. Without this new alliance we are much more likely to be subject to the paranoia of the ultra-right or the misplaced bureaucratic regulation of those to their left. Neither is a future to be desired.