This article is adapted from the American Council on Education’s Atwell Lecture, delivered on February 8th by Dr. Gee, president of The Ohio State University
The transformative effect of higher education, to change individual lives and to remedy global problems of all kinds, is without question. And it is shared equally among us. Public or private, two-year, four-year, research, and liberal arts—each of our institutions has a sacred responsibility.
Just as our institutions change lives, so too are we changed. Institutions evolve over time with the shifting needs of our students and the world into which they graduate.
Yet at this defining moment in our nation’s history, we have a mandate – more than that, a moral imperative – to hasten our pace exponentially. Evolution is too ponderous. What is called for is a step change. A fundamental departure from business as usual. I am calling for intentional upheaval at our colleges and universities just when fiscal chaos already places us on the edge.
To be sure, we are all reeling from sudden funding pressures, institutions as well as students. Virtually all of our public institutions are seeing reductions in state support, many in the double-digits. And all of us—though especially private colleges and universities—are watching helplessly as endowments diminish.
The first instinct in responding to this sudden economic crisis is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. That is the instinct, but acting on it would be a grave mistake.
I am calling for each of us to rethink the nature of higher education in light of unprecedented needs, and then to act. To act immediately. Our challenge today is radical reformation. Change at the margins will not do. The choice, it seems to me, is this: Reinvention or extinction.
If we think it cannot happen to us, we ought to recall the fate of the Swiss watchmakers. Fabulous craftsmen, certainly, but the world has moved on, technologies have advanced, habits have shifted.
When times are flush, we are apt to spread the wealth around like marmalade. But when resources are tight, our hand is forced, and we must make real, strategic decisions about academic direction, about programs for investment and disinvestment, and about how we meet today’s enormous challenges. We must finally learn to say the word “no,” a word rarely used in higher education.
Our duty is to wholly reinvent ourselves. We are America’s future—intellectually, socially, culturally.
First, we must move from thinking vertically to thinking horizontally. Last September, I held a day-long retreat with our trustees, a handful of faculty and administrative leaders, and a few students. The session was led by J.F. Rischard, the World Bank’s vice president for Europe. As the basis for our discussions, we used his book High Noon: 20 Global Problems and 20 Years to Solve Them.
The day took unexpected and sudden turns. Our agenda was abandoned before lunch. It was one of those too rare, full-frontal, all-ideas-on-the-table conversations. Guess who tossed out the notion of blowing up—completely eradicating—departments? A trustee? A student? No. The suggestion came from the chair of one of Ohio State’s largest and strongest academic departments. Ohio State is unlikely to eliminate departments in the near future, but we are moving much closer to that notion. We are shifting resources toward projects and programs that are trans-institutional in nature.
I am not talking about the old notion of interdisciplinary academic work. I am talking about a total rethinking of the way we organize ourselves and the way faculty approach their research and teaching.
At Ohio State, we have some examples already. Our Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the most visible. Research is underway on genetic markers and targeted treatments, on the preventive and healing powers of certain foods and behaviors, and on more traditional pharmacological approaches, among other treatments. In all, the Cancer Center draws on the skills of faculty from 14 of the University’s 18 colleges, and an even greater number of external partners.
Transinstitutional examples in the humanities abound. They are found at all of our institutions—in such areas as cultural and religious studies, ethics, and narrative studies. By their very nature, these areas are thoroughly integrated intellectually.
Breaking out of the old vertical, silo structures—which have calcified over time—will challenge us in several ways. Cultivating faculty collaboration and innovation requires us to think in new ways about how we acknowledge and recognize faculty scholarship. We will never totally forsake recognition for publishing in the usual academic journals, but we must be brave and wise enough to appreciate and reward other forms of scholarship as well.
Recognition and reward structures must change at the same pace and in line with changing scholarship and teaching. If we continue to reward our faculty in the prosaic vertical model while organizing ourselves horizontally, we will fail.
At an even more basic level, we must re-think whom we hire to teach our students and to lead our institutions. At Ohio State, we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new dean of our Fisher College of Business. The college is one of our strongest, and we cast a very broad net when conducting the dean search.
Christine Poon joins the University this spring after a 30-year career in the health care industry, most recently as vice chairman and member of the board of Johnson & Johnson and worldwide chair of the Pharmaceuticals Group.
She has never taught a class, and she does not have a doctorate, though she has master’s degrees in both biochemistry and finance.
More importantly, she led Johnson & Johnson’s group that generated $24.9 billion, nearly half of the company’s total sales revenues in 2007. Clearly, Ms. Poon knows a great deal about business, about leading and motivating others, and about turning ideas and discoveries into products that benefit people around the globe.
For their part, our students are way ahead of us, as always. Their standard operating principle is not just to question old ways of doing things, but also to be fully collaborative in their approach to education.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at an event for our Solar Decathlon team. The idea is for students to design, create, and build homes that are net-zero in their carbon footprint. Next fall, 20 student teams from across the country will transport their creations here to the National Mall, where they will be re-assembled and judged.
What I especially admire about Ohio State’s Solar Decathlon team is its composition: 60 members from 20 different majors. Engineers, artists, architects, accountants, marketing students, and more. That easy, ingrained, Millennial Generation approach to problem-solving is one of my great sources of hope for the future, by the way.
Even as we move away from centuries-old promotion and tenure models, we must retain and build on existing strengths. I believe the signal strengths of American higher education are two-fold: One, the great diversity of our institutions and missions. And two, they are thoroughly American—infused with the qualities of the geniuses who founded this country: enterprising, democratic, resourceful, driven, spirited, innovative.
Another illustration of my point: A few years ago, I was in Beijing visiting faculty, students, and alumni and meeting with officials in industry and government. I was asked to meet with the Chinese minister of education and expected it to be a brief photo-op and gift exchange, nothing more. Several hours later, I was still sitting at his table. What I recall most vividly is this: The education minister most wanted to know how American colleges and universities taught students to think, not just how to know. What he was getting at is how to move well beyond rote knowledge.
Quite frankly, the question left me scrambling. How to explain the ways our children grow up believing, truly believing, they can be anything they want to be? The way the best of our K-12 schools foster a child’s native inquisitiveness and facility for making connections among disparate subjects. How to explain a mind that is open, a spirit that is free, a college classroom that is exhilarating—and a country that has never known anything else.
Sometimes, understanding is easiest from the outside looking in. I thought about de Tocqueville’s assessment of our culture, “Democracy in America,” now nearly 200 years old. He was not entirely flattering, of course, but one of his phrases resonates very clearly. He found here a people who had developed what he called “habits of the heart,” and in doing so, they did not misuse their democratic freedoms. They created institutions and communities out of concern for the common good.
Being of this country is clearly one of the greatest foundational strengths of our institutions. And we simply cannot lose that creativity, innovation, and daring—our grand inherited legacy—just when we need it the most.
All of this is not to suggest that we turn our focus only to those within this country’s borders. Now more than ever, we see the true interconnections among global economies, confidence, people, and plights.
Our global thinking, our partnering around the world, bears fruit for all parties. I know for certain that Ohio State students and faculty—working with Ugandan farmers, with Bolivian craftspeople, with the Ukrainian government—return changed for a lifetime. They are enriched and enlightened beyond measure and in ways that simply are not possible through classroom work alone. Likewise, we hope that visiting students and scholars learn as much from their experiences on our campuses.
Recently, we were pleased to announce an initiative that will increase academic exchanges and cooperation between the United States and Iraq. Seven Iraqi university presidents will soon be meeting with leaders at North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, and Ohio State. This is a wonderful, positive step, and I look forward to welcoming their delegation to Columbus in a few days.
But we must do much more. We must focus on changing the basic culture of our institutions. We must be more agile, more responsive, more outward-focused, and less bureaucratic and insular. We must fundamentally rethink the nature of the institutions we lead.
Now, some colleges and universities are further along this path than others. Obviously, smaller institutions might seem to have an advantage here.
I will admit that believing these things as fervently as I do—while leading the nation’s largest, most complex, most vibrant university—might seem to put me at odds with reality.
I know that changing the culture at Ohio State requires a full-court press , and we are hitting the issue hard. To my good fortune, I have the backing of a dedicated Board of Trustees, wise and creative women and men who believe as I do that our finest days are ahead of us.
With the Board’s blessing, we began our culture-enhancing work last summer before the economic crisis took hold. In that, our timing happened to be advantageous.
With the help of talented consultants, we began a series of programs with the University’s senior leadership. The aim is to enhance our working relationships and to facilitate a common understanding of how we must change ourselves to optimize our work.
This is a new line in our budget at a time when we are searching for areas to trim. But I am determined that we cannot allow any more time to pass without fundamentally reinventing the institution.
An essential part of that reinvention is a new approach to partnerships, an aggressive reaching out to our communities, which need us now as never before. Our colleges and universities must seek out ways to apply knowledge to real-world problems, to enhance our neighborhoods and schools, to conduct research for the public good, and to fuel our nation’s economic prosperity.
Those ideas are firmly imbedded in our land-grant institutions, of course, and surely in our community colleges.
But as a leader of a land-grant and research university, I will say that we can—and must—do more.
Amid the press of our daily tasks, it is useful to remember that the Morrill Act, which established our land-grant colleges, was passed during the Civil War, arguably the nation’s most trying time.
In the middle of those darkest of days, President Lincoln had the wisdom and foresight to invest in young people, in communities. As you will recall, each eligible state received federal land to be used for the purpose of establishing new colleges dedicated to practical education for the so-called industrial classes.
Lincoln said that the new colleges were “built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public institutions their hopes, their support, and their confidence.”
We must reach out, as never before, to others of good will and common intent. We must initiate wholly new kinds of collaborations that extend our missions more completely and effectively to every corner of our nation and beyond.
And we must aggressively search for partners—with business and industry; public schools; preschools; senior citizens’ groups; federal, state, and local governments; advocacy groups of all kinds. And, perhaps most importantly, we must establish much richer partnerships with one another.
We must see one another as allies, not opponents. Sharp elbows and zero-sum thinking are utterly useless in the work to fuel our country’s resurgence. There is infinite room in American higher education for improvement, expansion, and collaboration. And always room for greater effectiveness.
It is no secret that the institutions feeling the most financial pressure at this moment are community colleges—the same ones being asked to accommodate more students, expand services, and increase offerings. They are the institutions most often called on to be first-responders…to retrain laid-off workers, to create new programs in green-energy technology, and to do so much more—with so much less. Truly, the drivers of our future will be this nation’s community colleges.
It is time now to move beyond the usual arrangements between two- and four-year colleges. Articulation agreements are productive and helpful, but they are not enough.
Just today, Ohio State announced the new Pipeline to Medical College program. Through this program, we are partnering with Columbus State Community College to enroll more traditionally underrepresented students in medical school. Students of great promise and an interest in practicing general medicine are identified early. The initiative involves not just rigorous and easily transferrable coursework, but also early mentoring and extensive support for academic achievement . Fully integrated programs with community colleges must move from the periphery to the core of our activities.
Finally, in this admittedly bleak season, we must tell our stories. It is incumbent upon us to communicate both the aggregate and the personal value of higher education. We need to describe in concrete terms how higher education changes lives, improves communities, feeds the world, sustains art and culture, cures diseases, and develops the technologies that will one day free us from dependency on fossil fuels.
I am not suggesting slick new public relations brochures, advertisements, and web sites. What I am suggesting is this: Gather tangible evidence and enlist the help of alumni, current students, parents, and certainly faculty and staff. They are our best and most compelling advocates. A week ago, I began a new effort to communicate the University’s economic-development impact. Instead of the usual economic-multiplier figures—which are either ridiculously low or ludicrously high, depending on whom you ask—we sought examples, anecdotes.
We created one-page fact sheets that describe projects and specifically how they have improved Ohio’s economy. These stories tell about companies founded and attracted, external funds leveraged, and numbers of jobs created.
I e-mailed the link to three of these one-page stories to the governor and our elected officials. We then forwarded them on to alumni, donors and friends, the press, and others who might be interested. And I will follow up with additional stories in another month or so and for the foreseeable future.
The basic idea is twofold: We need to communicate hope, and people will want to invest in us if we give them reason to do so.
The cost is negligible. The potential payoff is beyond calculation.
While we are redoubling efforts to help fuel the economic resurgence of our states and our nation, we must never lose sight of our critical role in preserving, creating, sustaining, and teaching the humanities and the arts. Quantifying the value of art and culture is impossible, of course. They make our lives richer, more compassionate, more fulfilled. They are, in fact, what make us uniquely human.
The subtle strokes and colors of 30,000-year-old cave paintings in France and Spain were surely more than factual reporting. Their exquisite rendering of the natural environment tells us much more—something foundational in the recognition of beauty and the human need to explore and express it.
The arts ennoble us and nourish our spirits, and we must never forget that our universities are cauldrons of artistic endeavors.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot remain who we are. Nor can we turn away from the facts of these challenging days.
– One out of every ten Americans—an all-time high—receives food stamps.
– 41 of our states—41!—are struggling with budget deficits.
– Americans living on unemployment checks is at the highest level since tracking began in 1967.
– Our students are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
We know that the American legend of boundless opportunity is more than a wink and a promise, and higher education is the linchpin that enables dreams to be realized. Yet, to continue to make good on that promise, we must now remake our colleges and universities to meet the unprecedented demands of this new age.
Simply put, we must be the architects of change or we will be its victim. We must find in ourselves—and inspire in those we lead—the vision to see through a gloomy present and the confidence to construct a bright future.
I will tell you that one of my own sources of inspiration is Senator John Glenn. Last fall, I watched Senator Glenn speak to 10,000 freshmen and transfer students. The day was hot, the arena was crowded, and the program was overly long. Senator Glenn’s part came at the end. He spoke for five minutes, and he had those students in the palm of his hand. They were pin-drop quiet, mesmerized by this giant in our nation’s history who stood before them, urging them to reach for the stars.
All of us have much to do on our campuses, but I firmly believe that we have now an act-or-lose opportunity. We should all approach each day with an urgency of purpose—one we all share as keepers of this remarkable legacy. As for me, in nearly 30 years of leading universities, there is no time I would rather be engaged in this work.