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Campus life & community – the continuing relevance of Ernest Boyer

Ernest Boyer's "College: The Undergraduate Experience in America" is 30 years old. But Paul Greatrix argues that there is a lot we can learn from his analysis of life on campus.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

He’s not exactly a household (or senior common room) name in the UK but I was reminded recently of the work of Ernest Boyer, a hugely influential figure in US education. Boyer, was an American educator who served as Chancellor of the State University of New York, United States Commissioner of Education, and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was recipient of numerous awards, including over 140 (140!) honorary doctorates (according to Wikipedia).

30 years ago Boyer led a Carnegie-funded enquiry into undergraduate experience in the US which resulted in the publication of the terrific book College: The Undergraduate Experience in America:

The experience of baccalaureate-level students in the United States is considered with particular attention to the way college structures and procedures affect students’ lives. During fall 1984, site visits by 16 observer-reporters were made to 29 colleges and universities representing liberal arts colleges, comprehensive colleges, doctorate-granting institutions, and research universities. National surveys of 5,000 faculty members and 4,500 undergraduates were also undertaken to obtain information about faculty and students: their age, sex, ethnicity, academic achievement, and their views about teaching and learning. To learn about a student’s transition from school to college, a special survey of grade 12 students and their parents was conducted, based on a random sample of 1,187 students in 196 high schools, along with telephone interviews with 232 high school counselors and admissions officers at the 29 site visit colleges. The status of general education was examined through a survey of 1,310 chief academic officers. Key issues identified include the marketing of higher education, discrepancy between students’ academic preparation and faculty expectations, fragmented curriculum, faculty divided loyalties and conflicting career concerns, and confusion over goals. Several special studies were commissioned to provide additional information. A “Guide to a Good College” is included as the epilogue.

Although dated in parts this is, in many areas, an exceptionally insightful and ultimately optimistic report about the future of higher education.

College covers the following topics (using updated terminology)

  • Recruitment and admissions
  • Educational, individual and social goals of the university
  • Transition and orientation
  • Curriculum issues
  • Faculty and scholarship
  • Creativity and learning resources including IT
  • Campus life and community engagement
  • Governance
  • Employability, work and lifelong learning
  • Graduation and learning gain

The epilogue is an outstanding summary of the components of a good university. Among many highlights the exploration of the challenges of fraternities and hazing and of the excessive influence of sport feel very relevant to today’s (reported) US student experience.

There is a lot UK universities can learn from Boyer but I have to say I think the principles for community, which were set out in a subsequent study, are excellent. This is a starting point of a much broader conception of campus life which I feel has real resonance today as we look to provide a more personal and engaged experience for our students and a campus community which more fully involves all university members.

Following the investigation which led to the publication of College In 1990, the Carnegie Foundation initiated a further study of community as it related to college and university campuses, entitled Campus Life: In Search of Community. This was a national study which covered:

social conditions on college campuses and found that college officials were concerned about alcohol and drug abuse, crime, breakdown of civility, racial tensions, sex discrimination, and a diminishing commitment to teaching and learning. In response to those findings, this book proposes that both academic and civic standards be clarified and that the enduring values which underpin a learning community be precisely defined.

Ernest Boyer therefore developed six principles that he believed should define the kind of community every college and university should strive to be. These are:

Principles for Community on College Campuses

A Purposeful Community:
A college or university is a place where faculty and students share academic goals and work together to strengthen teaching and learning on campus.

An Open Community:
A college or university is a place where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected and where civility is powerfully affirmed.

A Just Community:
A college or university is a place where the sacredness of the person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued.

A Disciplined Community:
A college or university is a place where individuals accept their obligations to the group and where well defined governance procedures guide behavior for the common good.

A Caring Community:
A college or university is a place where the well being of each member is sensitively supported and where service to others is encouraged.

A Celebrative Community:
A college or university is one in which the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals affirming both tradition and change are widely shared.

Two observations on this. First, if Boyer were around today to update these he would probably feel obliged to make at least some reference, however marginal, to virtual communities and the power of the digital realm to develop (and damage) community. Secondly, I have to say I find the phrase “the sacredness of the person” rather jars here in what is otherwise a tightly drafted piece. But I am being picky. This is a great set of principles.

All in all Boyer’s work is well worth revisiting.

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