In our opinion: Closed-minded universities flirt with irrelevance as they exclude commencement speakers

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Protesters that rejected highly successful and prestigious commencement speakers are only a symptom of a larger problem. But it is one that no-doubt has caught the attention of parents and students who want a more serious preparation for life.

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Recent surveys have shown that many colleges and universities are doing a poor job preparing young people for a life in the workforce. While it’s true that higher education exists to provide a variety of benefits, including skills regarding critical thought and a broad background of history, the humanities and other social sciences, to neglect the fundamental purpose of future employment is to flirt with danger.

Much has been made in recent days about student protests that have led to the cancellations of several commencement speakers at primarily exclusive private colleges nationwide. Critics of these protests are mostly right. It is ironic to see institutions of higher learning, at which the free-exchange of ideas and opinions ought to be encouraged, rejecting speakers only because a handful of students cannot tolerate what they have to say.

More than ironic, it is tragic. Former Princeton President William Bowen, a last-minute fill-in after Haverford College rejected former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau for refusing to give in to a list of demands, was absolutely right to call the protesting students “immature” and “arrogant.”

We note that Bowen received a standing ovation for his remarks. That is an indication that the voices of protest are few, and that the more levelheaded and freedom-loving majority are silently watching and are appalled.

But that is no excuse for college administrators who let the oppressive minorities carry the day. These administrators should act as adults and put the petulant disruptors in their place. Failure to do so only hastens the day when traditional colleges become irrelevant on the education landscape.

Private-market disruptors of higher education abound, providing free or mostly free Internet classes known as massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Some educationally innovative organizations have been forced to recalibrate their efforts in recent years, leading some critics to pronounce the movement a failure. That assessment would be premature.

A recent Boston Globe report on MOOCs by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and Michelle Weise noted how innovators are trying to identify what private-sector employers want and how to prepare students to fill those needs. These innovators not only understand what consumers already know about costs — tuitions continue to rise while students don’t receive any added value for their money — they also understand that students want to graduate with marketable skills.

A survey by Gallup and Purdue University, published last month, gauged how recent graduates felt about their educational experiences in six specific areas. These included available internships, class projects and whether professors engaged them in learning. Only 3 percent of those surveyed answered in ways Gallup says equates to “great jobs and great lives afterward.”

Protests that rejected highly successful and prestigious commencement speakers are only a symptom of this larger problem. But it is one that no-doubt has caught the attention of parents and students who want a more serious preparation for life.

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