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Tallahassee Democrat: Schools must make character a key subject, too

Monday, July 30, 2012

Character is not on a list of degree paths. It’s not a sport one can sign up for, or a club that can be joined. It is ever evolving as a person matures, and although it is not a state or board requirement, it should be an expectation that character remain a virtue that higher-education institutions should strive to grow in their graduates.

Noah Webster said in 1788, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities, and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” As we work to impart character and values in our young people, this quote outlines a baseline from which we should start.

As a representative of higher-education institutions in Florida, I have been following the developments at Penn State University closely. The NCAA should be fully praised for the actions taken regarding the horrific occurrences that transpired over several years at Penn State. Does everyone agree with every sanction presented? Likely the answer is no, but the message sent creates a foundation from which we can start anew to emphasize the critical values of character and virtue as integral elements of what a higher education should be about.

While this tragedy will go down in history as a sordid marker of exactly how we should never behave, I fervently hope it creates a lesson to be learned from so we move to avoid similar incidents. It is deplorable that it ever happened at all, and the depravity is enhanced by its occurring in what should be a free and safe place, the hallowed halls of academe. There are no winners in this path of destruction, no matter what lens you use.

One important fact Penn State administrators clearly lost sight of, and about which the NCAA president was quick to remind the rest of the country, is: “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.” I would add that nothing should be placed ahead of those things in higher education — they are the reasons higher-education institutions exist. Universities are places for learning — learning in the broader sense to include culture, self-awareness, academics, and the values and mores of our society.

No program — even one that provides a significant source of revenue — should be valued above the true mission of institutions of higher education. As we now can see, the price is too high for the students, parents, faculty and community that depend on leadership to display the kind of character described by Webster.

Along with many of my colleagues, I believe colleges and universities should first and foremost be institutions of learning, not just academic learning, but also learning that goes to the heart of what a free society should encompass. They should also be places free from occurrences like the ones that have come to light at Penn State.

Students and families should know without reservation that institutions are safe places where our young people can explore life to the fullest without any fear of those who have been entrusted with their protection and nurturing.

The NCAA made an example out of Penn State. As hard and as controversial as it has been to implement the punishment in this case, it is clear that the value of character has been sanctioned and, moreover, placed above doing what is easy.

Today’s higher-education graduates will not be taking home a diploma that lists character as an accomplishment. But, all higher-education professionals should strive to weave this quality into the fabric of our country’s next generation. As a result, it will be sewn into the foundation of America’s future professionals and elected officials. Character is always worth developing and upholding no matter the outcome. We should be developing the heart, as well as the head.

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