Monday Musing – A More Ethical Campus

What does it take to make a more ethical campus? What does it mean to have a more ethical campus? What elements must we have, what culture must we extend to have a more ethical campus? The answer may be in the work of Architect and Zoo Director Dr. David Hancocks. In his 2002 book; A Different Nature, Dr. Hancocks explores the paradox of the modern zoo. The idea that, as humans, we take animals that were meant to life and thrive in the wild and place them on display at zoos for the purpose of study and our own entertainment. We take these animals that are meant to roam free in wide geographical expanses and place them in a controlled environment. Of course this can go tragically wrong as we were made aware in early 2016 when a male gorilla was killed after a 3 year old boy fell into his enclosure. The incident sparked a spirited debate on the part of both animal and child welfare activists. However, one of the central arguments was not really pursued. That argument is what is the place of zoos in modern society? 

In his book, David Hancocks recollects the time that he and his fellow zoo professionals took an enormous chance and redesigned the Seattle Zoo in an effort to create a more ethical zoo. Unlike the cold and sterile zoo enclosures of the past, Hancocks and his team developed an enclosure for their gorilla exhibit that looked familiar to their native Africa and had many of the natural elements that they would find in the mountains of Cameroon, the Congo, and Gabon. This was controversial because there was a general understanding among Zoo advocates that giving these animals a more natural setting would bring out their violent nature. As these animals are exposed to a more natural setting they will desire to be free and turn on their handlers and try to escape. As the great experiment unfolded the opposite happened. When exposed to a more ethical setting the gorillas thrived. They became more active, bred more often, and formed tighter family groups. Incidents of gorilla violence against their human keepers plummeted. While not a perfect situation, given the desire of humans to have and visit zoos (each year over 150 million people visit zoos in the United States) there needed to be a compromise. The result was Hancock’s more ethical zoo.

Universities are not zoos. At least not in the traditional sense, go to any Student Union on a given Wednesday and zoo may seem like an apt description. However, there are some valuable lessons to be learned by Hancocks and his work with zoo environments. Higher education has been working under the assumption that the traditional model of college access and matriculation is the best way to engage and encourage student success. However, we are learning more and more that a traditional model of acceptance, classes, and graduation does not work for many students. While the value of a college education is evident despite debate the general sense if college is the best path to future employment and middle class life. On average a college graduate will earn more than $800,000 in their lifetime than those holding a high school diploma. More importantly since the great recession of 2009 virtually every job created in the aftermath has been aimed at those with a college degree.

But college, in and of itself, is not a panacea. The cost of college is still a major issue for many families and that seems to be rising. More and more students are mortgaging their future income through student loans to pay for college. For the class of 2014 the average college debt was $33,000 a year. These factors, combined with a perception college is not creating employable graduates, have led to many faculty, politicians, and business leaders to question the value of a college education. But what are the answers and what are we supposed to do about it? This blog will strive to explore this very question but getting at the core of college culture and understanding the unseen and interesting characteristics of higher education that make it such a needed institution in the United States. This blog is not a place to rehash the common arguments for or against higher education but to dive deeper into the collective impact of higher education on society and the unintended cultural and social influence college has.

It is my assumption that college is more than graduates and jobs but that is our primary product. As college gets more expensive and has more riding on the results the need to pull back the curtain and share its worth is more important than ever. This blog will explore, through popular culture, history, personal experience, interesting research, and opposing perspectives just how valuable colleges are to our national identity. I will also share some of my other interests and obsessions too in a series of music, sports, and cultural entries designed to give a deep dive into the culture and experiences that make us who we are. I hope to apply the viewpoint of Hancocks and his Different Nature to my and our work for better understanding. We are at a critical crossroad. When Hancocks redesigned the Seattle gorilla exhibit they were too. Evolve past the animal cages of the past or get passed by for both practical and ethical reasons. Higher education is at that same crossroad. It is time we evolve for practical and ethical reasons. Our students demand it, and its just the right thing to do – a more ethical campus.

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