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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Urban Mission Redefined

Sooner or later, all students at this university hear the words “Urban Mission” used in some university-policy context. Usually these words are all that need be said. If a policy is consistent with the words, it is good; if not, it is bad. Yet, like its national counterpart, the “American Way”, the Urban Mission is vague and merely suggestive: it alludes to our university’s diversity and affordability, to ties with the city and community, and to UMB’s general “uniqueness” among universities. But if the Urban Mission is to be the philosophy behind our university’s policy directions, it should be clearly defined and restated as a policy-making rubric, or it will never be more than a jingle, applied only haphazardly. To be a mission, there must be criteria for success, and an indication of what constitutes failure. Here is my attempt to define UMB’s Urban Mission, to break it down into its main components, and to outline a clear policy direction that is consistent with the words, to which all university administrators and elected representatives should commit.Firstly, the Urban Mission must be a public service mission. This university exists to serve the community. This service must reflect both our input – keeping the university affordable and accessible to the poor, minorities, and marginalized peoples of all kinds – and our output – ensuring that students leave with a top-notch education, and that the university involves itself academically and politically in issues facing the community and the world. Many universities are elitist enclaves within the communities they inhabit. We, on the other hand, commit ourselves to being part and parcel of our community. Take a moment to look around that community.Secondly, it must be understood that there is no such thing as a product that is both affordable and superior unless there is a third factor involved. For us, that is the fact that we are a public school. The Urban Mission must be a commitment to public higher education. We must resist all attempts at privatization, we must remake ourselves into a potent political lobby in State Government, and we must support the idea of higher education as an inalienable right. This is not a business, but a public service institution, and students must not be seen as customers (the natural group to foot any new bill) but as our most valued asset.Thirdly, we must remain a diverse school, and incorporate measures to ensure continuing diversity into any new enrollment- and retention-centered policies. We must also acknowledge that our diversity is our greatest strength. Academia tends to be marginalized in public discourse partly because it is not seen as representing the great mass of people. We do. Fourthly, we must all be the architects and builders of the Urban Mission. We are accustomed to a level of campus democracy, and we only expect that level to be raised. Institutions such as the Student Senate (which I am on), the Faculty Council, college-level governments and innumerable committees with student representatives are vital for open discourse and decision-making and should be strengthened. Further, a spirit of transparency and democratic practice should be present in all policy-making; community is based on consensus-building and camaraderie, not hierarchies and power relationships. Where there is disagreement, and there always will be, debate should be guided by the principles of civility and inclusiveness.Lastly and most importantly, the Urban Mission must not be reactive and defensive, but proactive and forward-looking. This is a crucial distinction: the former mindset strives to be the last to fall while the latter strives to be the first to triumph. It is time to get over the inferiority complex that permeates this school and take pride in it instead. Our education is not inferior; like anywhere else, it is what you make of it. If you ever find yourself envious of students from other colleges, spend some time with them. I have, at various conferences, and the only thing that amazed me was how higher the levels of maturity and real-world experience are here. We should therefore stop trying to justify our own existence and instead hold ourselves up as a model; assume a leading role in the debate over higher education in this country. Our school represents a vision of how academia should be, combining ivory-tower theory with street-level practicality, and replacing elitism with a new communal pluralism. We should recognize this, stop jumping at shadows, and rally around this more universal set of principles: 1) that higher education should be accessible to everyone, 2) that diversity of backgrounds and perspectives creates the most fertile ground for ideas, not narrow and traditionalist criteria of excellence, and 3) that the purpose of higher education is not merely to train new ranks of professionals, but to promote a form of public debate and decision-making that is democratic, transparent, civil, logical, skeptical, scientific, pluralist, inclusive, iconoclastic, and above all, honest. There is your Urban Mission, and here are your criteria for success and failure: success is the continuing transformation of society for the better based on the above principles; failure is anything less.