When James Chung last visited Wichita, he said a culture of “no” was standing in the way of successfully addressing our city’s problems. In particular, he claimed that Wichita is an “anti-college” city, and reported that a disproportionately large number of Wichitans said “no” to both to the idea that a university education is helpful to developing a career (which is true), and the idea that colleges and universities are valuable to American life as a whole (which is debatable, I suppose, depending on your premises).
Chung’s comments made me want to dig deeper — not just into what those observations really meant, but into what they can tell educators like myself about this city we call home. I was able to organize a forum involving local and state leaders and educators to look at perceptions regarding higher education, and invited those who attended to share their impressions about all they had heard. The results, from both the presenters and the discussants, predictably covered a huge range of topics — but in my judgment, one observation fairly consistently stood out.
Digging into Chung’s numbers and looking other measurements across the entirely of Wichita’s population, it is almost certain that the anti-college attitude he’d observed simply cannot be seen as a general one — rather, to the extent it exists, it reflects the attitudes of limited population group. Which group, though? Definitely not Wichita’s ambitious and education-hungry immigrant Hispanic population, whose enthusiasm for the higher education experience is palpable. Also likely not the many first-generation college students who are anxious to take advantage of opportunities for technical training and job certification (and who, insistently, appear more likely to stay in the area than traditional university graduates). Nor is it Wichita’s class of female professionals, for whom higher education makes available new ladders they are excited to climb.
Perhaps, then, the population which does reflect this anti-college attitude, to whatever extent it is real, is disproportionately influential. Listening to the speakers and reading comments from the audience afterward, I found multiple presenters and discussants touching, in different ways, upon the possibility that we have a generational disconnect in our city. A divide, that is, between the education- and diversity-oriented urban imperatives felt by many younger Wichita residents, and the outlooks and priorities of many of our established civic, business, and social leaders on the other.
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One can observe some truth to this possibility, even absent any deep reflection on the meaning of higher education in Wichita today. After all, some real age, gender, racial, and socio-economic differences are revealed when one looks at our city council, our county commission, our church boards, our law office partners, the CEOs of our major businesses, and then compares them to Wichita’s population as a whole. Could it be that the passion for higher education, and the recognition of its importance — which is obviously present in the lives of many — finds its enthusiasm somewhat undermined when the leadership class of the city fails to celebrate (or sometimes even reflect) the sort of expertise, or entrepreneurialism, and open-mindedness which higher education and professional training is supposed to be about?
Obviously there is no one explanation for the struggles which institutions of higher education face in Wichita, and there is no way that one forum could provide solutions to all such struggles anyway. And of course, the comments which struck me are hardly definitive. But they were, I think, suggestive nonetheless. If some people in Wichita downplay the many obvious economic and social benefits of higher education, could it perhaps be, at least in part, because a generation or more of Wichita leaders haven’t always seen the need to highlight those benefits in the first place?
Dr. Russell Fox is a political-science professor at Friends University.