Clemson President: There Is No Substitute for Campus Learning

As an architect and president of Clemson University, James F. Barker is perhaps the best person in America to speak to the value of the college campus as a place where young men and women can learn, grow, and be transformed within an atmosphere that is not only intellectually stimulating but also physically beautiful and inspiring.

Barker was one of several college presidents who contributed essays to a publication entitled Responding to the Commodification of Higher Education.  The title of Barker’s essay is “The Endangered Campus: Defining and Defending the Value of Place-Based Higher Education.”

Online delivery is “no substitute for the experience of ‘going away to college,'” he writes. “We must bring that experience into the 21st century and make it meaningful for today’s students. The best education is not transactional but transformational. It’s not: ‘You give me X amount of money and I give you a credential and a degree.’ Rather it is: ‘You give us four years, and you get a life-changing experience.’

Barker might have been speaking as well of the value of Clemson’s Calhoun Honors College, one of the most successful in the nation.

Barker recognizes the utility of digital learning methods, noting that for years Clemson has used a blended model in almost all math courses and in introductory chemistry. Students work in small groups while seated at round “technologically-enabled tables,” where they listen to short lectures and then complete exercises “to reinforce concepts and track progress.”  Using this model, students have had higher success and graduation rates.

Yet the success of this blended model in some kinds of instruction does not replace what Barker calls the “Idea of the Campus,” rooted in five concepts:

• Each campus is a distinct place. Each of us experiences it in a very personal way.
• The campus is a community – an intentional community. We are not born there. We choose to study or work there. It is a place of diversity and unity.
• The campus is stimulating and energetic. It bustles with ideas, creativity, and innovation.
• The campus is a work of art – for many of us, the first designed, beautiful, and cohesive landscape we experience.
• The campus is a place of pilgrimage – a place we return to, to renew a sense of belonging to the community we experienced in our youth.

But campus communities have another powerful value.  “Besides the cultural and historic value of our campuses, they also have economic value” Barker writes. “In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman wrote that ‘the best entrepreneurial ecosystems
in the future will be cities and towns that combine a university, an educated populace, a dynamic business community and the fastest broadband connections. These will be the job factories of the future.'”

But the most important value of the physical campus is the impetus it gives to instruction.  “A beautiful, stimulating campus environment attracts the best students, faculty, and staff. It encourages personal reflection and group learning. Simply being together in a physical place, as a community of teachers and learners, has tremendous educational advantages,” the president-architect writes.

The real concerns for Barker and many other higher education leaders is not whether online instruction will have a significant role on campus but how that role should be defined in a way that does not diminish the overriding place of the campus as the principal seat of learning.

Most would agree with Barker that “he campus has always been the place where students begin separating from their families and gain independence. It’s a place where the deepest kinds of discovery and learning can and should happen. It’s a place where brains are fed, minds are opened, and lifelong connections and communities are formed. It’s a place that attracts creative, innovative people and creates the right ecosystem for community and economic development.”