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Campuses as Beacons of Change

University campuses are increasingly becoming beacons for public values, contrary to the many critics who seem to believe that the Dark Ages are upon us in higher education.

There are many different campuses that are leading society to a better place by setting an example themselves. In the past, they were on the forefront of battles over gender and racial equality. But the story doesn’t end there. I see progress recently in four other important areas: gun control, sustainability, community outreach, and global health.

In the United States, the most recent instance is the campaign by many college and university presidents to take on the gun lobby and reassert the need for gun-free campuses—against considerable pressure from state legislatures in some cases. Five states now permit the concealed carry of firearms at public institutions. As other state legislators introduce bills to allow concealed firearms on campuses, higher-education leaders are stepping into the fight to prevent the proposals from becoming law.

Then there is the issue of sustainability. Many universities are in the forefront of the battle to produce sustainable campuses and they are often signatories to the 2012 United Nations Commitment to Sustainable Practices of Higher Education Institutions. Particularly noteworthy are the University of California at Los Angeles, which is able to reel off a list of wide-ranging sustainability initiatives, and the University of New South Wales, in Australia, which has similar efforts.

Again, there is the issue of community involvement. Every campus interacts in all kinds of ways with its community. That has been the case for a long time, but what has changed is the scale of the ambition. Take, for example, the recently opened Penn Park at the University of Pennsylvania: 24 acres of community facilities. Or take the way in which many universities are expanding their arts centers to serve larger communities.

Perhaps the best illustration of my idea is the issue of public health. Global public health has become a matter of pressing concern. There is still much to do. Although many infectious diseases are coming under control, noncommunicable diseases like cancer and heart disease are big and increasing killers and also have devastating effects upon dependents (medical treatment is one of the chief causes of impoverishment in many parts of the world, not to mention the loss of a breadwinner). Many of these noncommunicable diseases are the result of adverse lifestyles like obesity or alcohol abuse or smoking. It follows that, if lifestyle changes, so will the incidence of these diseases. Preventive medicine is the way forward.

By one estimate, there are going to be 262 million students in the world by 2025, of which eight million will be studying abroad. If just these students were to adopt healthier lifestyles, then a significant part of the battle could begin to be won, since students are significant influencers. Add in university staff, and here is a cohort of people who can really make a difference through example and by proselytizing. Of course, many students and staff already follow healthy lifestyles. But others do not. So changing their habits can make a real difference.

University leaders are beginning to realize this. It is not about promoting sports, although that is an important ingredient. It is about getting a modicum of physical exercise, about appropriate diet, about spotting early signs of disease. For example, nonsmoking campuses are spreading. An interest in sports is turning into a more general interest in exercise. Early testing for susceptibility to noncommunicable diseases is becoming a regular campus event, often helped by student-run charities.

One way of helping to foster these kinds of commitments is by signing up with U.N. Academic Impact, a recent effort aimed at aligning higher-education institutions with the United Nations to actively support universally accepted principles in areas like human rights, literacy, sustainability, and conflict resolution. Another is to align each higher-education effort with ventures like the Clinton Global Initiative University. There are numerous other means of demonstrating why campuses are more than campuses, but hopefully the point is made. When it comes to their role as public goods, campuses are, in many ways, becoming more rather than less focused on public benefit.

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