Universities have been badly squeezed for resources in the past few years, and we hear talk of a “higher-education bubble” as big as the real-estate bubble. One consequence has been that universities are being forced to hone in on their core missions as they make decisions about what programs are superfluous to that mission. In a recent essay, Adam Kissel commented on the financial state of universities, noting:

as universities shrink and higher education loses air — more like a hissing tire than a bursting bubble — the pressure of competition will rise as we’ve never seen it before, and colleges will feel the need to make clear what their core missions are and what they really stand for.

Kissel continues by discussing how examples two kinds of university — the large research university and the social justice university — have responded to the challenge of clarifying their missions and making decisions about what programs to curtail. Those outside academe might reasonably be surprised by the very idea of a “social justice university.” After all, “social justice” names a desirable condition of civic life, not an academic pursuit. In this it is unlike the term “liberal arts college,” which indicates the undergraduate study of the liberal arts, and the term “research university,” which indicates the pursuit of cutting-edge research by faculty and the training of students to share in future research. Social justice universities are distinctive in making the preparation of students for work that will advance social justice central to their didactic mission. Kissel’s chief example is Roosevelt University in Chicago, which has as its mission to educate “socially conscious citizens for active and dedicated lives as leaders in their professions and their communities.” It takes its inspiration, as its name indicates, from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and a progressive notion of social justice. Another example is Antioch College in Ohio, with a mission based on the belief that “authentic social and community engagement is vital for those who strive to win victories for humanity.” Antioch’s social justice mission, and its distinctive alteration of study terms and work terms, is so inspiring to its alumni that many labored to reopen Antioch this fall after it had closed for financial reasons in 2008. But social justice universities are not the exclusive purview of the left. Patrick Henry College has as its mission “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.” Although Patrick Henry would distain the progressive connotations of the term “social justice,” it has the same intention of preparing students for work that will change the world. Patrick Henry simply has a very different notion of social justice than Roosevelt or Antioch. The very difference between these notions of social justice, and the fact that what would be embraced at Roosevelt will be disparaged at Patrick Henry, and vice versa, reminds us that whenever a university commits itself to preparing students to take up a cause — whether progressive or conservative — it discourages certain questions, modes of inquiry, and models of human excellence and it shapes its students to answer questions about social and civic life in a certain way. These universities create a sense of community among students and faculty and give coherence to their curriculum at some cost to the openness of academic inquiry. It’s not that such colleges can’t or don’t teach the liberal arts — they do — but they are doing so in a way that directs students to certain answers to the perennial questions of human life. Kissel concludes that, as the higher education bubble deflates, only universities that pursue a clearly defined core mission will flourish. It’ll be interesting to see whether universities and colleges with a public service mission and ethos stand out to prospective students and their parents in the coming decade. If liberal arts colleges and universities aren’t better able than they have been at presenting the case for a true liberal arts core curriculum, they may find themselves losing market share to those that have a clear mission of preparing their students for social action.