The Imperative To Re-­energize The University In Service To Society

The Imperative To Re-­energize Th

Today, it is no secret that our colleges and universities are beset by an array of problems, new to most of us: chronic shortages of funds, coupled with soaring fees and public resistance to higher taxes; new skepticism from members of the “attentive public” about our productivity, accompanied by hard questions about research and tenure; an academic culture that appears to measure excellence by scholarly citations and the number of doctoral candidates, not minds opened or the needs of undergraduates; vigorous new competitors in the academic market, ready and eager to provide services we have ignored; and sharp conflict among faculty, administrators, and other leaders about which of these problems need immediate attention and how to address them.


To add to our difficulties, one of the nation’s great strengths, its cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity, has been unscrupulously used to open old wounds in our national life, encourage hostility to immigrants, and create new divisions on our campuses – in the process placing many new burdens on our institutions and the people in them.


All of those challenges will be difficult to address and solve. Some may prove intractable, no matter how good our intentions. Nonetheless, university presidents and their allies – trustees, faculty leaders, the business community, and others – must point people in the right direction and make a start down the road.


We have no crystal ball and we do not know what the future holds. But among the many issues deserving attention it seems to us that five lie at the heart of the task before us.


  1. The Student Experience.

With the value system favoring research and graduate studies firmly entrenched in American universities, undergraduates too often become at best a responsibility, at worse an afterthought. We find that observation too close to the truth for comfort. Just as we can help reinvigorate undergraduate preparation at research universities, both public and private, we can make a useful contribution by again placing the centrality of the student experience – graduate and undergraduate, full-­time and part-­time, traditional and non­traditional – at the top of our institutions’ agendas. Polls indicate the American people place a high value on our research. They appreciate our outreach and service. But they support us because we have historically provided unprecedented access to high quality, affordable education. We cannot disappoint them in this expectation and depend on their continued goodwill.


  1. Access.

This public expectation points us to the second major issue we must address, access. Access has been the hallmark of our institutions in the past; despite the financial pressures all of us face, maintaining access must be our major priority in the future. Yet as budgets tighten, our first reaction is often to think about limiting enrollment. We need to ask ourselves some hard questions. In the face of the challenges overwhelming our campuses, how do we maintain our commitment to access for all qualified students? If fees must increase, how can we protect those least able to bear the burden?


Above all, in the multi­racial, multi­ethnic America of the 21st Century, how can we remain true to the vision of a practical college education for all? What are the implications for our recruitment, admissions, and counseling policies? And for our curricula and faculty reward structures? Asking these questions is easy. Answering them may be the hardest work for us.


  1. Engaged Institutions.

The great genius of the land­grant movement was its emphasis on responsible engagement with the community, particularly through university extension and outreach education. The great current need of our institutions is to define what responsible engagement means in today’s world.


In our judgment, we are talking about a university that is a partner and a servant. We are struggling with how to define a new kind of university – an institution that is intimately connected to its community and responsive to the many demands made on it nationally and internationally, while also providing the broadest possible access in ways that respond to student needs. What does this mean for our campuses? For our teaching function? Our research mission? Our service goals? We hope that we can redefine the entire issue of responsible engagement and outreach for the 21st century.


  1. A Learning Society.

A major unrealized opportunity lies before our institutions – becoming fully engaged with the ongoing national effort to reform American public schools. At least three aspects of this opportunity merit our attention. First, we can act as partners and mentors, putting our institutions’ research and expertise at the disposal of school change. Then, we can acknowledge that our graduates are at the heart of the schooling enterprise, and we can significantly improve teacher preparation programs. Finally, we need to encourage learning from kindergarten on, harnessing together school reform, college and university renewal, and new technologies for distance learning. In brief, we need to think through how to create a learning society for the 21st century, one that encourages learning throughout life.


  1. The Culture of the Campus.

Finally, the very culture of the campus itself needs attention. With their commitment to education, research, and public service, our institutions have helped create a national system of higher education that everyone acknowledges to be second-­to-­none in the world. But few of us quibble seriously with the criticism that excellence in research is a far more important consideration within the faculty culture than excellence in teaching or service. We may wish that were not true. Most of us can point to exceptions that prove the rule. But, for the most part, that critical arrow finds its mark.


Social trends, institutional changes, technological advances and intellectual developments are making a new world for higher education. Viewed in terms of the future they are propitious currents of opportunity. We face two issues: one of productivity and one of public perception. Those issues are problems or openings, depending on our viewpoint.


Take the issue of productivity. Our national survival requires more and better educated citizens. Work and citizenship are more knowledge-intensive and continuously changing. What was once the luxury of a college education has become necessary for personal and community survival. Our graduates need to leave not just with knowledge but with the ability to apply knowledge, and create new knowledge. Public funding for higher education is weak. In response to these new educational needs and falling government funding, tuition continues to rise faster than the rate of inflation. Increased demand for a different kind of education, at a time of fewer resources, creates a need for greater productivity.


Thus, the question: how can we deliver knowledge-users and makers to society with fewer resources? We can view this as a potential destroyer of past traditions or an opportunity to revolutionize education to achieve many cherished academic goals that once seemed utopian. We have the opportunity to redesign higher education in the light of our new knowledge about how the brain works, people learn, and information gets processed. We have a chance to think as if we were the first educators free of the habits and dogmas of the past. Consider these possibilities: studios, workshops, seminars and laboratories without lectures; ideas to be created, problems to be solved, policies to be crafted without rote memorization and regurgitation; and students driven by curiosity, excited by mastery and rewarded by the pride of accomplishment.


Consider the mismatch between what our stakeholders say they want – better, different and more undergraduate education – versus the way they believe we spend our energies – on research publications and graduate education. Stakeholders outside the academy want to help us establish new priorities and standards of performance. They want higher quality education at lower costs, interdisciplinary research and education focused on real problems, a reward system that recognizes the importance of undergraduate teaching, and a change in pedagogy from the focus on teacher performance to learning achievement. Vociferous expressions of these concerns seem to imply that the public does not think we work hard enough, when what they are telling us is that we are working on the wrong things.


The public perception issue is an opportunity to engage our stakeholders – alumni, business leaders, public officials, taxpayers and parents – in the rethinking and remodeling of education. We have an opening to bring the public into our conversations about how to design and deliver the education of the 21st Century. We can ask our stakeholders to share with us their ideas, their opportunities, and their problems. Employers can explain the new requirements of using and making knowledge in a turbulent world. Leaders can present public policies as hypothetical solutions that scholars can test and improve. The growing desire to learn about aspects of the world from art to zoology throughout our lifespan can be translated to new kinds of textbooks available anytime and any place. The new, almost universal, student body of lifetime learners can become partners with the university in exploring new subjects and new ways to learn. We can rethink and redesign education to exceed the demands of the 21st Century.


The new mission, values, vision, and strategic goals statement recognizes academic quality as our highest priority and calls for a vigorous program of continuous improvements in teaching. Its strategic goals include innovative approaches in teaching and learning, rigorous self-evaluation of undergraduate programs, and building excellence in active learning that integrates current scholarship and research. It also calls for the expansion and improvement of information technology to enhance teaching.


Surprisingly, current budget cuts can create a fertile atmosphere to focus thought and actions on innovations. Since we supply and leverage resources in the form of ideas, funds, training, expert advice, and sounding boards, we can work as an ally in coping with reductions. More departments are willing to talk abut curriculum innovations and the recasting of large introductory courses. We are presented with openings to aid faculty members in experimentation and enhance our ability to promote a Darwinian range of innovations, some of which may become harbingers of the future classroom and many of which will be sources for new ideas and approaches even if they fail.


We can begin to see the outlines of the college classrooms of the future. We know the focus will be on learning and on outcomes and not the expense or reputation of teaching inputs. We can conceive of knowledge content available electronically in texts, video lectures, demonstrations, simulations and virtual problems. Learning will be active. Students will start with things to do – lifelike problems to solve, new knowledge patterns to create, and ideas to test – and will seek the necessary information, principles, intellectual tools and knowledge base under the tutelage of the faculty. Instructors will roam the new learning spaces like coaches waiting for the failures that signal the teachable moment when they can intercede with the example, the story, or the principle that galvanizes the students’ desire to excel. Students will work in high performance teams gaining knowledge and communicating it to others – now a learner, then a learner teaching others – but always practicing the cognitive skills of gathering and presenting evidence, and creating arguments as they learn when to change their minds and when to change the minds of colleagues.


That vision is still blurred in many details. It conflicts with the current arrangements of classrooms, curricula, teaching assignments and scheduling. We do not know how to achieve it in practical terms. That is our challenge. We do know how to create new practices by means of intelligent fast failure. We know how to try many things, to be open to new and tradition-busting ideas, and to encourage new approaches that make obsolete our old problems. We know how to learn from the failures, ruthlessly discard what doesn’t work or costs too much, while keeping the kinds of records and maintaining the accountability that allows improvement. That way the devilish details get worked out, the ways open, and the future becomes clear and compelling.


The innovation business is not simple or easy. We would be foolish to ignore the barriers to change. Parts of the university lack any sense of urgency in changing the way we conduct undergraduate education. Many faculty members see change as a threat to traditions and high standards. Some see efforts to improve education as an add-on to already busy schedules. The most successful faculty have thrived on the old ways of emphasizing teaching performance over learning outcomes. They are adept at organizing and presenting knowledge, enforcing the memorization of facts and principles, and sorting out students who test best. In this view student failure, poor motivation, and lack of creativity is someone else’s problem. These attitudes and views could keep the efforts at the margins of university activities, unless we recognize them and work to change them.


We have developed working procedures for soliciting, selecting, coordinating and monitoring innovation projects and we are improving them. With success comes an increasing administrative workload. The more projects and programs that we solicit, support, organize and evaluate, the greater the details of communication and coordination. How to continue to grow, to encourage participation and to keep management spare is the challenge.


The second problem is a lack of consistent and widespread student participation. Despite various attempts to generate enough student interest to start an organization focused on improving learning, we have not attracted many students. We have learned must from our failures, including the realization that students still see their role in learning as passive. The future job of the student as an active learner has yet to be described. We must find a way to make the connection between students as innovators in the classroom, with success in careers and lives after graduation. A major challenge will be to find means to foster student participation in learning innovations.


We know that trying to change every aspect of a traditional course produces frustration and consumes too much time and energy. We know that public forums for presentations and reviews of attempted improvements energize the faculty. New ideas breed even more new ideas. Faculties are eager to master the theories and principles of learning and to apply them to the design of their courses. Professors want to know how to create, implement and manage collaborative learning environments involving peer review of writing, supplemental peer instruction and group dynamics. Instructors seek expert advice in developing methods for assessing learning outcomes. Finally, more and more faculty want the advice, instruction and support of information technology specialists in order to find ways to improve access, speed feedback and eliminate drudgery.


Dissatisfied students want to move from being almost passive recipients of instruction concerned with grades and credentials to learners responsible for their own education. Like all of us, they get comfortable with traditional ways even if they are bored with them. They seek training in how to achieve high performance in teamwork and they desire opportunities to practice. We know they can quickly learn to deal with the conflicts and frustrations of humans working together. We sense that they, too, need forums in which to reflect on their practices of learning instead of reviews of how to cram to maintain high cumulative averages. We begin to see students participating in the design of their assignments and the evaluation of their learning. This is the right moment to find ways to meet their needs for challenges, high expectations, and opportunities to become autonomous learners.


We have learned about needs and about how to meet them. What we have learned best are some methods or approaches that produce exciting results. These include:


– focus on learners, learning activities and learning outcomes

– foster change at the level of individuals instructors, students and courses

– foster collaboration across the university of students, faculty, offices, and academic units working to improve education

– employ intelligent fast failure techniques, evaluating ideas by trying several at once

– involve students, faculty and staff in the planning, operations and assessment

– foster and sponsor students as partners in innovation and agents of change

– listen to and respect criticism of our ideas and resistance to change


In refocusing American higher education, how can we reform what needs to be changed while preserving what is best about our institutions? In our judgment, we need to pay particular attention to the traditional reward structure with its emphasis on individual faculty entrepreneurialism, pursued within the walls of departments devoted to the interests of individual disciplines. At the same time, a reformed and revitalized state university and land-­grant system must honestly face long­standing internal obstacles to change in the form of faculty and administrative dynamics. While administrators sometimes paint a picture of the faculty with its face turned firmly to the past, faculty leaders often point to administrators with their heads planted firmly in the sand. These issues and dynamics need to be faced squarely, with suggestions about how to reform the culture so that the reward system reflects our commitment to community engagement and student needs, in reality as well as in rhetoric.


Looking Ahead

Will addressing these five issues solve all of the problems facing our institutions and society? Perhaps not, but our larger reform agenda cannot possibly be attained without serious and sustained attention to each of them. Each of you will bring your own set of concerns to the table – international education, support for graduate education, global competition, concerns about agriculture and food systems, extension education, outreach, and the like.


We welcome this discussion, but remain convinced that what our charge is really all about is the imperative to re­-energize the university in service to society so that our institutions engage their communities, reflect the needs of students, and extend to teaching and service the same respect and rewards now reserved for exceptional scholarship and creativity.


Our preliminary thoughts are that we should take up each of the topics above, in order, issuing a report summarizing where we stand. Each of these reports should define the problem as we understand it, point to promising targets for reform, identify and describe key reform models already underway on our campuses, and issue whatever recommendations we think appropriate.


There is obviously much for us to do, all of it in a great cause. From the very beginning, the people of the United States have put their faith in education, confident that it led to better tomorrows. That faith has been repaid many times over as our schools and colleges, in nourishing our values and culture, have immeasurably enriched our society.


Now a new imperative is before us – to re­define the function, role, and mission of public and land-­grant colleges and universities to meet the challenges of this new century. Americans can meet this new imperative as they have met others in the past.



Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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