Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.

No one whose family has been touched by higher education doubts its potential to transform lives. And yet, skepticism toward higher learning has become increasingly fashionable, reflecting understandable anxieties about this fraught moment in our history as well as cynicism about American society and institutions.

The numerous social, environmental and public health challenges facing our nation and world are an opportunity for colleges and universities to demonstrate their power to change lives and create hope. What can the leaders of colleges and universities do to restore confidence in institutions of higher learning and ensure that students can meet these challenges?

For starters, we need a diversity of colleges and universities proudly owning what makes them different. This demands that institutions forge an authentic identity reflecting the values and strengths of their community members, rather than simply aspiring, often in vain, to emulate other institutions. The uniqueness of each university community is its testimony to the world, containing the power to transform it.

In my early days as president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the leaders of our campus faced the challenge of a young university in the midst of an identity crisis: Would UMBC become a stronger liberal arts college, a research powerhouse or a “big public” known for respectability in sports? This was not just a question of strategic planning: It was a question of understanding our values.

We carried out robust, tough conversations with people from every corner of UMBC to answer that question. This process both identified our values and shaped them, engendering a shared commitment to high expectations, academic achievement, honesty and civility.

These values have created an environment where learners thrive. Nearly 70 percent of UMBC students graduate within six years, and we lead the nation in Black graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees in natural sciences and engineering and master’s/doctoral degrees. Most important, we are producing the kind of leaders we desperately need at this moment in our nation’s history — like Kizzmekia Corbett, now a professor at Harvard, who co-led the team that developed Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine.

The promise of higher education — to guide us through the darkness of history and into the light of progress — has never been more important than now. All types of institutions have a role to play in solving thechallenges we face. We need the radical innovations that originate from elite technical institutions; the life-changing opportunities created by accessible public universities and community colleges; the focus on critical thinking and civic-mindedness of small liberal arts colleges; and the moral and ethical perspectives offered by religious institutions.

As colleges and universities reclaim what makes them unique, so will they strengthen public confidence in education’s transformative potential.

By rediscovering a sense of purpose grounded in authentic values, our institutions of higher learning can be guiding lights not only for their students, but also for a nation in need of hope in a moment of weariness.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is the former president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.