Last week I went to the League for Innovation in the Community College‘s Innovations Conference. Overall, I have to say that this conference was far less interesting to me than the League’s CIT, where I presented in Florida in the fall. This is not specifically an ed-tech conference, which was part of the reason, and it was here in NYC, which may have been another part, and I was only attending, not presenting, which was another part. (Although that confence did have the major disadvantage of Jeb Bush’s keynote).

But I kept being reminded, forcefully, of how different we are at BMCC from other community colleges–especially in today’s world. President Bush has said, repeatedly, that he thinks of community colleges, and will fund community colleges, specifically and (relatively) exclusively as job-training (or retraining) institutions–vocational programs. Now, that’s certainly a part of all education, but, as I’ve commented before, it’s not what I see as the primary or optimal objective. Particularly at BMCC (more than most community colleges, perhaps because we’re part of a larger university), we’re committed to the idea of a liberal education, not just job skills. Our faculty are required to have PhD’s, and to research and publish, exactly like faculty in the senior colleges. I don’t think this is the case at most community colleges.

Two specific anecdotes to illustrate…

First, Maricopa Community College‘s Vice Chancellor Ron Bleed talked about “Overcoming the Biggest Barrier to Student Success.” He gave us some observations which made a lot of sense, and some which made less sense (a disquisition, for example, on the superiority of Barnes and Noble stores in Arizona, to the one on 5th Avenue in New York). But his main point, his “biggest barrier to student success” was (I’m oversimplifying) spending time in class. Now, I certainly understand that student convenience is important, and that students (especially in community colleges) do have limited time, and multiple responsibilities. I teach online, after all, and I certainly know that distance learning has advantages which are practical, not just pedagogical. But there’s such a thing as being too practical by half. And when I raised this point, when I wondered whether there were actually some advantages to having students spend an extended time on a subject, working together, and learning as a community, I got dismissed quite abruptly. “Well,” Vice Chancellor Bleed answered, “I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing that model. There will always be some old-fashioned faculty who will never let go of that.”

But he really wasn’t so bad…at least not relatively. The low point was reached in the conference’s closing session, with Gay Gilbert, the Administrator of the Office of Workforce Development, Education and Training Administration in the Bush Department of Labor. “For too long,” she told us, “community colleges have been social service institutions first, and market/economic institutions second. This administration, this president, will reverse that. We see community colleges as market institutions with economic benefits, with any social benefits only incidental.” She went on too describe, with glee and relish, how very much money the Bush administration would be throwing at community colleges which would fall into line with that vision, and how easy it would be to get that money.

I couldn’t really get a sense of how she was being received by the audience (closing session of the conference–most people had their coats on and their rolling suitcases by their feet), but she was being received by me with shock and horror. I don’t work for a “market institution” (I’m not so sure it’s “social service,” either, but that’s closer). I work for an institution of higher education. Increasing productivity, economic growth, sure, those are benefits of higher education. But they’re incidental. We’re here as part of a much grander tradition–the tradition of culture, and knowledge, and civilization.

I would hate (and I will fight against) the idea that what we do is primarily a market function…that we serve “customers.” There will certainly be a place for that function, and maybe some community colleges are that place. But if so, I wish they wouldn’t call them “colleges.” Because we’re a college, a campus of a university, and we don’t have that mission. We’re doing something very different, very much more important, and very much more admirable.