Ken Starr: Higher Education Must Reclaim Its Soul

by Ben Smith - UNC Chapel Hill on October 4, 2013

A recommitment to academic rigor and morality is what universities need to get back on track, says former special prosecutor and current university president.

“Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

This quote hails directly from the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the same Congress which approved the First Amendment, and it references the belief among Founding Fathers that the role of public schools includes promoting morality.

It’s also the quote Ken Starr chose to open a speech titled “American Higher Education: Working Hard … or Hardly Working?” in Cary, North Carolina, on Thursday night. Starr’s speech, sponsored by the John W. Pope Institute for Higher Education Policy, examined the state of higher education and its need for major reforms.

Starr, currently president of Baylor University, is famously known as the independent counsel who investigated the Clinton administration and authored the Starr Report, which asserted President Clinton lied under oath and led to his impeachment.

Starr, in his address, referenced the book “Excellence Without a Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education” by former Harvard law dean Harry Lewis. He paraphrased Lewis by lamenting on the loss of foundations that will help guide students on how to live and flourish as adults.

Starr recalled a story from Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, whom he joked “didn’t always agree with me when I argued in front of her (as U.S. solicitor general).”

He told of how O’Conner explained a concept of judicial appointments under Federalist Paper 78 to a crowd, and when she realized they did not understand what she was talking about, she backed up, and read it to them. As he recalled her story, Starr stated, “O’Connor said that civic education had ‘collapsed.’ ”

Starr argued there are three steps colleges can take to revamp and correct this downward slide.

First, he said, they must “commit or recommit to rigorous curricula.”

“Students have decreased their study time … from 40 hours per week when I went to school to 23 hours per week,” he said. “That says one of two things: those students are either not studying, or more so about what they are studying. The things they are studying might not be essential.”

He cited the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, which looked at more than 1,000 public instituions and graded them on difficulty. There were only 23 A’s, including Baylor. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill received a B, while Duke University and North Carolina State University followed with C’s.

At Baylor, all students are required to take three classes: American constitutional traditions, Christian scripture and Christian heritage. Starr said these courses helped strengthen Baylor’s grade.

“I know that public university cannot require the religion classes,” he said, “but with our Baptist background, Baylor has found these to be essential.”

The second reform, Starr said, would be for higher education standards to “seek to educate for wisdom.”

“What makes us human?” he said. “You, like at Baylor, could take this for a theological perspective, or from a different one at a public university. There needs to be an aim for the wise life.”

Starr stressed the need for fostering meaningful relationships between faculty and students.

“These relationships need to be advocational,” he said. “The mentor must ask: what are your strengths, talents or gifts? It is important that the student comes first, and we must find faculty that want to help.”

The third reform, Starr said, “must be extending education into culture, to which higher education has fallen short.”

“This extension must promote freedom and secure the blessing of liberty,” he said. “We in higher education are taking steps to promote culture and freedom here and around the world.”

He argued the university must be “a marketplace of ideas where creativity is abound, therefore students and the community can flourish to their full potential.”

The good news, Starr concluded, is the “explosion of entrepreneurship degrees in higher education.”

Fix contributor Ben Smith is a student at UNC Chapel Hill.

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