Giving Ventures Podcast: Reimagining Higher Education

There are, however, individuals fighting to create new institutions of higher education that respect free speech and academic inquiry. In fact, on the latest episode of Giving Ventures, host and DonorsTrust Vice President Peter Lipsett talks with a couple of them.

Those guests include Pano Kanelos, president of the University of Austin, and Dr. Stephen Blackwood, founding president of Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia. Both gentleman are working hard to offer a higher-education alternative that is more open to intellectual curiosity.

Solving Crises in Higher Education

Kanelos — former president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland —  is building a university from scratch. His goal is to solve both the financial and free-speech predicament students face when signing up for a four-year degree at a major university and even at smaller, liberal-arts colleges.

“There are several crises in higher education that are interlinked — one is a kind of loss of faith in the fundamental principles of what higher education should stand for. The second crisis is the financial crisis that we see in higher education — the sort of financial models coming apart at the seams.”

So, Kanelos and his team are building a university that, on its website, bills itself as “a university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth.” Namely, it aims to be a place where students can gather for lively but cordial debate about the topics of the day while engendering a spirit of intellectual humility. 

There is also a third issue with higher education in America — apart from its departure as the home of civil discourse and free speech, says Kanelos. He says that professors by and large are slow to truly equip students with the skills they need to survive and get ahead in our modern economy. 

“The third [crisis] is a kind of curricular crisis in that universities really haven’t adapted themselves to the fluid, dynamic world we live in to prepare young people to be the kind of change agents and leaders for tomorrow. So, we’re trying to address big things, big problems, big questions at the same time.”

‘Build a Better Alternative’

Dr. Blackwood is a step ahead of Kanelos in that, when faced with the dilemma of whether to improve higher education from within or starting fresh, he decided to build his own college from the ground up, founding Ralston College in 2010 as a place dedicated to reviving “the conditions of a free and flourishing culture by providing transformative, rigorous education in the humanities,” according to its website.

“Time has taught us that the sharpest, most effective, most trenchant intervention you can make is simply to do it better — do it better, do it faster, do it cheaper, do it more beautifully, do it more inspiringly. ‘Build a better alternative’ is always the best way to have some effect over the corruptions, perversions and lazinesses of the status quo,” says Dr. Blackwood.

Ralston College doesn’t have a political or religious affiliation and — like Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia — doesn’t accept government funding and chooses instead to maintain its institutional integrity and commitment to free speech and academic inquiry.

“We’ve had perspicacious, clarion calls to action —  diagnoses of a really, really big problem for the better part of —  closer to a century now than it is to a decade —  and yet what have we accomplished in that time?”

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