When I arrived as Dean at this community college, the staff surprised me with a corn plant as a welcome gift. It was a tiny little thing that, over the years, grew to over seven feet tall, nearly touching the ceiling. I loved the plant both because my colleagues gave it to me and because it was so hardy and beautiful. During one winter, I was surprised to see that the tips of the leaves had begun to turn brown, and brown and yellow spots appeared intermittently throughout the leaf structure.
As the winter progressed, the spots became more prominent and the plant looked as if it were not going to survive. Despite my inexperience in resuscitating plants, I became more attentive to my corn plant. I changed the size of the pot to allow the roots to spread; I put fertilizer on the plant for the first time; and I watered it when it seemed to need it instead of when I just happened to think about watering it.
Interestingly, as unsightly as the plant became, it continued to grow tall. One day, while leaning in close to water the plant, I noticed something next to the bottom of the stem just barely on top of the soil. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a tiny shoot. What amazed me was that it had the shape of a fully developed corn plant. It was the tiniest corn plant one could imagine.
While I continued to attend to the ailing larger plant, within months, the tiny shoot grew to nearly half the size of the original plant. The new plant was hardy with thick green leaves. In the meantime, the original plant began to bend its stem away from the new plant. This allowed room for the new plant to spread its leaves in new growth. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed that the original plant had nurtured a new version of itself. I thought to myself that this was a perfect example of a transmutation.
What I think is happening in higher education today is like the transmutation of my corn plant. To some observers, higher education seems impaired and not as healthy as it once was. Yet, it continues to grow because of grant-funded research, exemplary scholarship by star faculty, increased endowments generated by gifted fundraisers, and increased numbers of students seeking a degree as a way to move a step up on the economic ladder.
If higher education leans in closely, as I did when I discovered the tiny new plant, it will see that it must recast its role to actually and truly put students at the center of the enterprise. Putting students at the center requires meeting students where they are today. Where they are today includes expecting that their unique place in history and their stage in development will be respected. While they share some commonalities with all students, they will not allow the system to paint them with the same brush.
Common among today’s students is the fact that they are learners, as well as producers of knowledge. Therefore, they want the kind of partnership with colleges and universities that will enable them to negotiate a better match between their personal goals and their desire to be activist citizens in the current social movement.
Colleges and universities can learn, and will, like the dying corn plant, know how to nurture its rebirth by bending away from some of its practices and traditions in order to become congruent with the needs of a new culture that is demanding something different.