Plant Seedling

Terrain of Change and Challenge

By Andrew K. Benton

I often look into the eyes of new students and muse to myself that I know something they do not: I know how good life can be for them when accompanied by education and the remarkable sense of community they will experience at this place called Pepperdine. In our hallowed halls, faculty and distinguished scholars challenge each of our students to look beyond the ordinary, imparting new and reimagined perspectives into tender minds.

Over the course of their time spent with us, I am reminded how a college education can move students from feckless to fearless. This new chapter of life and learning frees young adults from the expected and the mundane and enables the celebration of all that lies within them. As they unlock new reserves of creativity and begin realizing their full potential, they literally jump for joy in our presence as we show them the unlimited potential of their lives. What a remarkable gift we can provide to our students.

Yet, while we nourish ingenuity in our students, we who nurture them sometimes forget to inspire ourselves. We inadvertently let ourselves stumble in the complexity of budgets, endless program reviews, seemingly cruel publication deadlines, or the pressure of managing the human dynamic attending every one of our Pepperdine duties. And when we do these things to the exclusion of finding our originality, potential, and indeed, joy, we become diminished, less than creative, predictable, and tired.

In recent years, the value of a college education has dominated national conversation, with many authors and educational pundits questioning whether a college degree is still worth it. Universities have been accused of becoming painfully backward and antiquated, especially those whose focus is in the liberal arts, with some evidence to suggest that higher education has become routine, stale, and even irrelevant.

Yet, while I hear these arguments and certainly relate to the issues of affordability, access, and accountability, I wholeheartedly affirm the core value of the way we teach and encourage our students to learn at Pepperdine. Former U.S. secretary of education William Bennett authored a book this year entitled Is College Worth It? On my copy, which I have read carefully, I wrote the word “yes,” for I truly believe it is.

Many forget that the modern education system came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. Education of a century ago was designed to meet a singular need determined only by the skills demanded for an industry or trade. As a result, primary and secondary education was standardized just like the factories where students would go to work. Teachers, in fact, did not even need to know what they were teaching; they just needed to know how to teach it—able to provide just enough knowledge for students to be able to read instructions on an assembly line.

While most agree that we have moved beyond the industrial era of unskilled labor, that utilitarian model of learning has carried forward through today, now in desperate need of disruption from its historical roots. But by observing current trends in education and the debate on education reform in the United States and abroad, it’s apparent the system is still often designed to create a workforce that fits the demands of industry. In this model of learning, which has become expected and confined, the value of higher education may be a relevant question.

But our vision for a Pepperdine education has never been that narrow, nor will Pepperdine ever become just another degree mill. What we teach and how we teach it is too important. We unabashedly embrace our students as the heart of our educational enterprise and seek to endow them with a transformation of their whole person.

And we humbly achieve this through a liberal arts curriculum, based on intellectual rigor and a moral backbone. According to scholar Sir Ken Robinson, who visited with our faculty and staff last fall, these precious liberal arts enable our students to unlock the “gift of the human imagination,” to discover the “extraordinary evidence of human creativity,” and to take us into a “future that we can’t grasp.”

We reject the notion that education is simply a commodity. We remain true to the belief that the breakaway success of American higher education hinges on confident—even controversial—debate, where steel sharpens steel and the exchange between teacher and student leads to gestalt, “aha” moments of discovery and total transformation of character. When it comes to the inklings and ideas that will propel our next generation of leaders forward, we affirm that the classroom, in its most literal sense, still matters most. Indeed, we are assured that college is still worth it.

The future of Pepperdine University will be shaped by how we respond to these criticisms and other challenges presented to us. Colleges and universities are routinely confronted with new calls to action from countless stakeholders. Those that we accept and those that we reject will narrate the next chapter of our Pepperdine story. In other words, we have some decisions to make.

Will we assert that all of our present paths are the right ones, or will we innovate and try new techniques likely to add greater value to the lives and futures of our students? Einstein once said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” From another angle, Sir Ken Robinson observed in his commentary, “Creativity is as important as literacy and should be treated with the same status. We need a revolution in education.”

With this revolution in mind, will we simply be defensive in our response to the unending criticisms presently aimed at a profession we love and honor, or will we seize the agenda and charge confidently into the future? Will we respond to the challenge to lead a “culture of innovation” or is good enough just that: good enough?

While we never favor failure at Pepperdine, we do nurture a climate of calculated risk-taking, something Pepperdine, when at its best, does well. For example, in what we fondly call our Malibu Miracle, our move to this quiet beach town in the early 1970s was a strategic risk—and forever altered Pepperdine’s history.

We were the “first to market” with executive MBA degrees, especially our Presidents and Key Executives MBA. The establishment of our Graduate School of Education and Psychology was also once a risk—and it was deemed worth taking. Acquiring a proprietary law school in Orange County, accrediting it, and nurturing it into our highly ranked and recognized School of Law might have languished if more timid souls had been in charge. Our School of Public Policy could have been just a dream, but we made it a reality. Our commitment to peerless, quality, international study-abroad opportunities happened 50 years ago because we chose to lead boldly.

Now is not the time to be satisfied, resistant to change, or unwilling to accept the inevitable criticism from those who prefer to sit in the stands offering only jeers for those who, as Theodore Roosevelt described, were willing to “enter the arena.” Will we remain in the stands or will we enter the arena? Not only must we enter, but we also must be champions.

We have recently undertaken a deep dive into Pepperdine University, carefully reviewing our internal and external environment, assessing our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. As we continue to do so, we will decide if we have the will to take new, calculated risks for the benefit of our students and the future of the University. Whatever we decide, we know one certainty: the status quo is not viable.

Instead, as we profess the value proposition in our curriculum, we must continue to lead and blaze new trails for Pepperdine and higher education. We must explore growth where growth will be attended by quality. We must inquire into the efficacy, efficiency, and adequacy of “big ticket” budget items such as financial aid. We must examine Pepperdine’s competitive positioning in a comprehensive and strategic manner, starting immediately. And we must discover fresh approaches to managing our five remarkable schools.

The world of higher education is changing faster than, perhaps, we can comprehend. As we look to the year ahead and look into the eyes of the students whose lives we have charged ourselves to change, we must give one another permission to take bold risks, embark upon new challenges, and even fail in the good faith effort to make us better. In doing so, we will ignite the innovative capacity that will lead all of us into the Pepperdine of tomorrow.