Too Many Walls?

Too Many Walls?

The Obligation for University Public Service Programs to Create Discord, Redefine Access, and Facilitate Unsafe Space


Remarks Prepared for the American Society for Public Administration Super Session Panel, “The Role of Public Service in American Universities in the Future,”

21 March 2016

Thomas A. Bryer, PhD

We have too many walls in our society. Not only in the United States but around the world, we have too many walls. Some walls are real, physical structures. Some are imaginary but psychologically as real as the physical.

Too many walls already exist, and there is popular sentiment to construct new walls: a physical wall on the US southern border to keep out the Mexicans, a bureaucratic wall in immigration offices to keep out Muslims, fences and walls within Europe and entering European territory to slow or prevent the free movement of refugees, a wall on the US northern border to keep Americans out of Canada… that last one is a joke… I think.

We have walls around our neighborhoods, with gated communities. A few years ago, in a Florida community, a resident of such a gated community expressed a fear of the larger area becoming a full functioning municipality—a fear grounded in the perceived threat that the walls of the neighborhood would be taken down.

We have walls around our individual homes. Some are real walls in the form of fences and locked gates, sometimes with big signs that say “Stay Out. Private Property. Beware of Attack Dog.” Some are symbolic walls, which we know exist looking at social science survey data. Neighbors do not know neighbors; small percentages of us talk to our neighbors, help our neighbors, work with neighbors to solve community problems, or even know the names of our neighbors. At a community meeting only a few weeks ago, a woman told a story of how a neighbor was speaking to her on her front porch, suffered a heart attack, and died, right there on her porch. She felt guilty, because when paramedics arrived, she could not tell them the neighbor’s name.

There are walls between individuals. These are walls that prevent trust development; they are walls that reduce empathy; they are walls that make us most comfortable talking to and interacting with people who look like, think like, talk like people who are just like us. They are walls that facilitate fear when confronted with people who are considered as “others” or “outsiders” or people from the wrong side of the wall, the wrong neighborhood, the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, the wrong nationality, the wrong ideology, the wrong political party, and so on.

Our Facebook and other social media walls are constructed as such. They are not walls akin to bulletin boards to post photographs and reminder notes, celebrations and announcements. They are walls that create separation masked as popularity contests: whose post gets the most likes? Whose life is the most successful as measured by social media self-promotion? These walls create jealousies, and we know through research that they can create loneliness, isolation, and they can exacerbate social divisions. Our social media friends tend to be people who agree with us. When our posts are liked, they are liked by a chorus of like-minded individuals who occupy similar social and economic strata. We must be clear: the Facebook wall is as much a wall of division as the walls barricading our neighborhoods, our national borders, our homes and our minds. It is the same kind of wall as exists between universities of exceptional standing and the rest of society.

Here is my walk-away conclusion: universities, and specifically public service programs at universities, must take as a mission to breakdown walls within their institutions and between their institutions and the broader community. They must take as part of their mission to create discord by upsetting the safety of life behind walls; they must redefine the idea of access to university education to include not only access for underserved populations to become enrolled students to earn degrees; access means taking the educational process outside the walls and confines of tuition-paying or fee-generating students.

Public service programs must take as part of their mission to eliminate the idea of safe space in the university, because when we aim to build social capital, enhance empathy, cultivate more active and ethical citizens, and develop socially responsible entrepreneurs, we are aiming to dismantle the walls that divide us. With such an aim, safety that does not lead to critical self-reflection, questioning of one’s values, questioning of one’s upbringing, and challenging one’s deepest held biases, is not possible nor desirable.

The way to get here, to a place where public service programs in universities are deconstructing walls and forging new ties, requires some critical actions. I discuss several of these in more depth in my book, Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship, and Community, published with Lexington Books.

Our ability to achieve our intended aims requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about and operationalize the way we teach, the way we research, and the way we serve. If we remain stuck behind the narrative of the economic rationale of the university, we will box ourselves in, indeed inside a rather oppressive set of walls.

This is where we start. There are four dominant narratives about the role of universities: the economic rationale to create jobs, the economic rationale to develop skills of the workforce of today and the future, the knowledge production and dissemination rationale, and the citizen cultivation rationale. If we treat each narrative on its own, as we often do, we have internally divided universities pursuing these individual goals and competing for scarce resources to achieve them.

The narrative we must create, and we are in a powerful position within public service programs to lead the way, is a narrative that recognizes the legitimacy of each individual narrative but also recognizes the bigger narrative, the larger goal that can be achieved if we do not operate in silos but operate with integrated purpose. The bigger purpose is stronger communities and the guaranteed opportunity for all people to pursue the good life.

Let me give an example. Advocates of the economic rationales of the university often, as part of their argument to reallocate scarce resources, disparage the other legitimate aims that exist. They draw a line in the sand; they create wall of separation, and say that the “others” are not legitimate functions of the university. Consultants to a task force convened by Florida’s Governor Rick Scott asked in a report what they considered a serious question. They observed that in the past 50 years or so, there have been more than 35,000 published articles and books about Shakespeare or the work of Shakespeare; they asked, presumably with a straight face, would not the first 1,000 or even 100 have been enough? How does such activity contribute to the creation of jobs, they asked.

I can give more examples, and they appear both in the political sphere in the battle for funding of public universities, as well as in scholarship. Suffice to say here that the battle lines have been drawn, the walls erected, and the outcome is what one observer wrote as institutions that are not uni-versities but multi-versities, institutions that serve multiple masters without coherence.

If we aim to improve the lot of public service programs in our universities, we must simultaneously use the language of the dominant narrative of economic rationale while seeking to change the implementation of that narrative and to change the narrative itself to be more integrative of all other legitimate narratives.

For example, when our universities are asked to report statistics on average alumni salaries within the first 5 years of graduation—a common category of metric for performance funding of universities—we must advocate more nuanced measures that recognize the human value of lower-wage public service careers. When asked to report how many new businesses have been launched by alumni, we must advocate to include how many nonprofit organizations have been launched.

When we are asked for measures of Return on Investment that include financial metrics alone, we must advocate for measures of Return on Engagement that include organizational, policy, and social measures. ROI asks what financial return we get when we invest our financial and human capital in certain research enterprises; ROE asks what policies, procedures, relationships, and ultimately lives change when we put our professors, staff, and students directly in the community as part of the research, teaching, and service processes.

Universities have tremendous human capital potential. At the University of Central Florida, the second largest university in the United States by enrollment with approximately 63,000 students, we are surrounded by communities that have significant need. In the three counties around the university, we have approximately 15,000 homeless students kindergarten through twelfth grade. These are students who do not have a stable and permanent place to sleep at night; some sleep outside, some in cars, some in short-term motels, and some move from friend to friend night after night. The human capital potential of the university is made clear when we do some simple math; if we divide all UCF students into groups of 4, and each group commits to providing support, mentoring, and encouragement to 1 homeless student, we can go a long way to breaking any multi-generational cycle of poverty that exists within this population.

You might say, yes, this sounds good, but that will never happen. I will not be naïve and ask, “but why not?!” I agree, it will not happen. However, our potential to achieve a high ROE, Return on Engagement, is real, when we commit to both breakdown the walls within our universities, eliminate the walls between our universities and our communities, and to help facilitate the removal of walls and prevent the construction of new walls between neighborhoods, neighbors, and nations.

As an association of public service professionals, with international membership and recognition, the American Society for Public Administration is in a powerful position to change the narrative of the university that is dominant today, and to ensure fairness to public service programs in the narrative that is now being predominantly implemented. ASPA can highlight innovative practices in public service programs around the globe; it can provide reward and recognition to policymakers who go against the grain to promote public service and broader public good purposes of universities; it can celebrate global partnerships that encourage multi-cultural understanding, such as the program funded by Seoul Metropolitan Government and the University of Seoul and that includes numerous American universities in cultural and educational exchange.

I suggest that ASPA establish a strategic priority to ensure the narrative about the role of university education maintains faithfulness to public service programs and public service professionals. Establish a strategic taskforce to develop specific actionable steps that can be taken with policymakers, the media, and other stakeholders with influence, and do so in coordination as, perhaps a joint taskforce, that includes our friends in ARNOVA, NASPAA, APPAM, AOM, PRMA, and others. ASPA can take the lead in coordinating like-minded associations, to breakdown some pretty low walls as a demonstration of what can be done if we fight to prevent the more dangerous walls in our society from remaining in place or being built ever higher.

Thank you.


Published by Prof. dr. Thomas Bryer

Dr. Thomas Bryer is professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, Fulbright Scholar and Specialist, Professor at Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania) and Visiting Professor Edge Hill University (United Kingdom).

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