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Campus Life: America's Ivory Towers Are Overlooking Some Mean Streets : Education: Crime, sexism and racism are increasingly common on campuses. There is diminished commitment to teaching and learning.

May 06, 1990

"The idyllic vision so routinely portrayed in college promotional materials often masks disturbing realities of student life," concludes "Campus Life: In Search of Community," a study published last Monday by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Following are excerpts from the study's prologue:

American higher education is, by almost any measure, a remarkable success. In recent decades, new campuses have been built, enrollments have exploded and today many of our research centers are world-class. Still, with all these achievements, there are tensions just below the surface, and nowhere are the strains of change more apparent than in campus life.

At a recent meeting of college and university presidents, one participant explained his frustration: "We have growing racial tensions at our place. There's more crime, and I'm really frustrated about how the university should respond." The president of a large public university confessed: "I've been around a long time and frankly I'm more worried today than in the 1960s. Back then, you could meet with critics and confront problems head on. Today, there seems to be a lot of unspoken frustration which could explode anytime." At the heart of these concerns was what yet another president called "the loss of community," a feeling that colleges are administratively and socially so divided that common purposes are blurred, or lost altogether.

These presidents and others reflect the deep ambivalence many college leaders feel about how the campus should be governed. Every institution has clearly defined academic rules, but what about the social and civic dimensions of collegiate life?

There is a deep concern at most institutions about student conduct. College officials consider alcohol and drug abuse a very serious matter, one that poses both administrative and legal problems.

There is also a growing worry about crime. And while robberies and assaults have not reached the epidemic proportions recent headlines would suggest, many institutions are increasingly troubled about the safety of their students.

Especially disturbing is the breakdown of civility on campus. Incidents of abusive language are occurring more frequently and while efforts are being made to regulate offensive speech, such moves frequently compromise the university's commitment to free expression.

Deeply rooted prejudices not only persist, but appear to be increasing. Students are separating themselves in unhealthy ways. Racial tensions have become a crisis on some campuses. Furthermore, even though bias against women is no longer institutionalized, sex discrimination in higher education persists in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. It shows up informally in the classroom and occasionally in tenure and promotion decisions.

Finally, there is an unhealthy separation between in-class and out-of-class activities. Many students are spending little time pursuing intellectual interests beyond the classroom. The goal of many is getting a credential, and while undergraduates worry about good grades, their commitment to the academic life is often shallow. Thus, it became increasingly apparent that the quality of campus life has been declining, at least in part, because the commitment to teaching and learning is diminished.

These concerns about campus life are not new, but surely they reveal themselves in strikingly new ways. Consider the students. Today's undergraduates are, by every measure, more mature and sophisticated than the teen-agers who enrolled a century ago. But increasingly, many students come to college with personal problems that can work against their full participation in college life. Is it possible for colleges to intervene constructively in the lives of students whose special needs and personal lifestyles are already well-established?

In addition, lots of older, non-traditional students now populate the campus. Often they enroll part-time, only attend a class or two each week, and because of complicated schedules are unable to participate fully in campus life. Is it realistic even to talk about community in higher education when students have changed so much and when their commitments are so divided?

Diversity has dramatically changed the culture of American higher education as well. Men and women students come from almost every racial and ethnic group in this country and from every other nation in the world. The harsh truth is that, thus far, many campuses have not been particularly successful in building larger loyalties within a diverse student body.

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