Reclaiming the Social Compact

In the last issue of ICView you read about my inauguration, which was a day of deep significance for me and for Ithaca College. I’d like to share with you portions of my inauguration speech, as it included some of my most carefully considered thoughts at this time in history regarding Ithaca College and higher education in general.

Colleges and universities have been part of a social compact since the University of Bologna was founded in 1088. They’ve been granted financial support, an unusual degree of autonomy in internal operations, and freedom of thought and expression. In exchange, it is understood that colleges are not in business for themselves, or even solely for their students, but for the public good.

Today that social compact is frayed    in reductions of public financial support and in challenges to academic freedom and the autonomy of colleges. The lack of public support is a consequence of our tendency to downplay higher education’s value to society, instead emphasizing the private benefits to career and income. Perhaps this is because education has become so expensive, or perhaps this is the message we think students and families want to hear. But when we treat higher education as a private good, we weaken the case for public support.

Our purpose is to enable the citizenry and leaders of tomorrow. It is time to reclaim the social compact involving higher education, not just by demanding rights and privileges, but by shouldering responsibilities. We must demonstrate the public good that higher education uniquely creates.

Higher education is well structured to create a breadth of understanding about different ways of knowing, types of knowledge, and ways of representing information. We are also very effective at teaching students to deepen their knowledge in a single discipline. 

But how do we help students develop the skills to translate their knowledge into action? Three key educational experiences strengthen their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities:

              using application as a learning tool;

              engaging community; and

              integrating educational experience across fields of study.

Learning by application means working on real-life problems as they arise. At IC we profess the ideal of applied learning by, among other things, our founding membership in New American Colleges and Universities, ANAC, whose members seek to be “national models of integrative [education].”

We are proud of the extent to which application is integrated into the learning of our students in studios, labs, and the field. Our students learn to tackle problems, work with others, apply skills, and get things done.

We also hold up our end of the social compact by invigorating community and educating citizens and leaders who will enrich community throughout their lives.  

President Emerita Peggy R. Williams framed her 1998 inauguration celebration and address around developing learning and citizenship. The tradition continues, with our robust residential community and deep engagement with the wider community, as recognized by our inclusion on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since its inception.

As a comprehensive college in which the liberal arts and professional education enrich each other, IC is positioned to be a leader in offering integrated learning — thematically coherent curricula that draw upon the perspectives and skills of many fields. This is part of our DNA: Founding president Grant W. Egbert envisioned integrating allied schools in other professions and the liberal arts into the Ithaca Conservatory of Music.

But it’s been left to each student to determine whether and how to seize the opportunities. If our core purpose is to educate the citizens and leaders of tomorrow, we must more intentionally create experiences that span schools in the investigation of important issues. We can neither confine students nor let them confine themselves.

This past year I invited employees, students, alumni, and community members to discussions about our mission and how we can become better at fulfilling it. Participants brought an overwhelming breadth of crea-tivity and insight, displaying an underlying agreement on the principles of integrative learning — which was astonishing, given the sessions’ lack of structure or precedent. They believe we can create an academic community that spans disciplinary and organizational boundaries, fosters creativity, supports risk taking, is flexible, and develops lifelong learners who are global citizens — while offering a shared academic experience. 

In helping launch the Integrated Curriculum for Ithaca College — (IC)2 as it’s been dubbed — faculty are engaging in discourse across disciplines. Students are also playing a valuable role. We plan to create a partnership of faculty across the schools and divisions, plus staff involved in cocurricular activities and residential life. We’ve just begun to flesh out this strategic vision, but we know that one challenge will be to formalize the disruption of disciplinary and departmental boundaries.

Ithaca College is a national leader in applied learning and community engagement. We’ve begun to become equally strong in offering students educational experiences that span disciplines. The steps we have taken will put us on a road to leadership in integrative learning as well.


Read the full inauguration speech at