It would be foolish not to concede that the growth of higher education described by the past two decades is at an end. Our agenda for decision involves shrinking campus space and staff. We will have to do more with less. This concerted effort to pay attention to what we do with what we have is a price we must pay for the future. Further, it must be conceded that as a result of the impending financial crisis some institutions will be forced to close.
People respond to such a crisis; frequently, they respond heroically. But we have wallowed in depressing facts too long. Over time sustained crisis has a draining, enervating effect. There are limits to growth in size; we have reached those limits at least for the decade ahead in higher education. But at the same time that anticipation of growth is unrealistic, no growth is equally unthinkable for educational institutions. Not only does the acceptance of no growth leave behind a defensive, depressed human spirit, but also the espousal of the end of growth is devastating to our reason for life as an institution.
What is so desperately needed on campus is a quickening of our excitement over future growth, growth not defined by becoming more in numbers or dollars or buildings but growth defined by development of human potential. In the years ahead universities probably will have fewer students and diminished resources. Equipment will age; facilities will badly need repair and replacement. This is the fiscal reality of the new depression in higher education. Against these limits we need to place a reaffirmation of our tasks and a realization that there are no limits to human growth.
Planning must focus with clarity on what we can do. What is needed in this vision is a new zeal in doing what we do better, in reaching out to become more as teachers and as scholars, and, at the heart of institutional life, in helping others to grow. In this there is no depression; rather, there is exhilaration and excitement in expansion. As educational institutions, we are involved not in the management of decline but in the management of growth.
There are lessons to be learned from adversity. The Old Testament prophets spoke to Israel of the judgment of God on the life of the people of Israel. The prophets thundered a message that the most difficult burden for the people of Israel to bear was prosperity. When they could do what they pleased, there seemed little need to anguish over their heritage and little need to ask pointedly what was important. The Hebrew kingdom was divided and they were threatened on all sides. In that moment the prophets proclaimed to the people of Israel the use of adversity. Such conditions, they argued, drove people to a sense of their history and to a new urgency in addressing the questions of commitment.
While the analogy is imperfect, this pronouncement is a key perspective on the future of higher education. We do not need to be reminded of dreary facts; they are much in evidence. What is required is a sense of mission and a joy in our ability to serve the human condition. One use of adversity may be to force an examination of the meaning of growth and a renewed commitment to human growth , our own as teachers, scholars, administrators, and the growth of our students.