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It’s up to universities to do better job making the case for their value to economy and society, leaders say

If universities are to flourish during the next century, they need to do a better job publicizing their role as drivers of economic growth, civic discussion and the production of new knowledge.

That’s the opinion of three distinguished leaders who took to the stage last night as part of the University of Minnesota’s Great Conversations lecture series.

America’s best universities “have become the engines of innovation and discovery,” according to Jonathan R. Cole, the John Mitchell Mason professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must be Protected.”

“Universities don’t do a terribly good job of tooting their own horns about the things they do well,” Cole said. “If we disinvest in them as we have begun to do, then I think the nation’s welfare is literally under threat. They will not spin off new companies, new industries.”

U of M President Bob Bruininks, who hosted the discussion, concurred. “I occasionally get paid to lobby for the university,” he joked, “and it’s not a hard job because I can’t imagine what Minnesota would do without this engine for its economy.”

Bruininks reeled off the names of numerous medical device manufacturers and biotech concerns that call Minnesota home, explaining that their executives have often said they would not be here if it weren’t for the university’s ability to supply a skilled workforce.

“Getting the public’s attention on the consequences of disinvestment is very important,” Bruininks added. “Our state and our nation need to rethink our human capital perspective.”

Especially at a time when other countries are scrutinizing the American university system in an effort to compete for pre-eminence, the speakers said.

Today, 700,000 foreign students are enrolled in U.S. universities, said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities and a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Ten years ago, China had none. Now, it’s host to 250,000.

“It’s going to be a much more global marketplace than it has been in the past,” Berdahl said.  

Even so, systems of higher education in other countries still lack one of the core values that make U.S. universities such vital places, Cole explained: The idea of academic freedom.

When he speaks about the concept to university leaders overseas, he rarely generates much interest. “They think it’s something professors hide behind when they are under attack,” Cole said. “But it’s vital to the production of new ideas.”

By way of example, he cited the University of California’s role in the discovery of the prion (PDF),  naturally occurring proteins that can go off-course and cause disease. For 100 years, it was assumed that only viruses and bacteria caused disease. The idea that proteins could cause disease, too, was initially seen as wildly unorthodox.

Berdahl concurred: “It’s an act of faith to say we will tolerate the exchange of ideas we find loathsome because we have faith that the truth will win out. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much.”

It’s easy to assume that all of this innovation is coming from science and technology programs, the speakers cautioned. Consequently, as state and federal funding has plummeted humanities have taken a disproportionate share of the hits.

Research at American universities increasingly crosses disciplines, however. “As nanotechnologies develop, there are going to be ethical quandaries that emerge,” Cole said. “In great universities, there is a certain seamlessness to these disciplines.”

University leaders also need to do a better job communicating the importance of the relationship between research and undergraduate teaching. Student evaluations of faculty always hinge on the faculty member’s degree of accomplishment in research, the speakers noted. And the most talented educators are not likely to take jobs at universities that don’t value undergraduate education.

Other countries’ efforts to create great university systems are hampered by separating the research mission from the teaching mission, Cole added.

On the whole, however, the speakers agreed that the rise of dynamic universities in other parts of the world can only benefit higher education here. Competition is one reason U.S. institutions are so strong.

“Competition has driven this greatness,” said Cole. In the next century, “we may have fewer of the top 20 universities in the world, but there will be more great universities and we will all benefit from that.”

The Great Conversations series is produced by the U of M’s College of Continuing Education. MinnPost is a media sponsor.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/01/2010 - 10:00 am.

    While the president and other administrators were chewing the fat, the University of Minnesota is going to hell in a handbasket – to use two hackneyed phrases because I am so sick of this situation.

    Even the Deans of the University of Minnesota admit that we are in deep trouble, trouble that this administration refuses to acknowledge while continuing to prattle on about things global. As my grandmother used to say, worry about the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.

    Mr. President, worry about the University of Minnesota fulfilling it’s land grant mission for the citizens of the state.

    The emperor has no clothes:

    “Ms. Stahre asked if, given current constraints, the deans feel quality in their colleges has suffered because they are unable to make investments. Dean Davis-Blake said that quality is going down because the quality of the student experience has declined, which is related to uncontrollable central costs. At the Carlson School, they have fewer TAs, fewer classes, more students in classes, the building is less clean, there are fewer advisers, they have more adjuncts, and they have less information technology. All of these things are happening.”

    Central costs must go down or in four years her college will be spending more on central costs than it does on its faculty. Making that change will require hard choices and it will require that the University model revenue and live within its budget.

    Professor Martin said she was not surprised by the scenario being laid out by the deans. It gets to the question of the quality of the University in the aggregate. Her question is about the quality of the student experience: Students are paying a lot more than when President Bruininks started in office, and the assumption has been that quality of the experience would increase as well. Now they are hearing that the quality is eroding. How can the University play in the global village when its costs are increasing and the student experience is declining in quality?

    What is extremely important as the University plans for the next biennium, Dean Parente said, is that it makes clear what it is doing to enhance quality for students. That must be a main driver; the University cannot argue for tuition increases because the state is cutting funding. The tuition increases must be related to the quality of education.

    Source: Senate Committee on Finance and Planning
    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    For more of the same, please see:


    Mr. President, as an alum and faculty member, I am deeply disappointed in your performance in these and other matters. Talk and Great Conversations are cheap. Leadership matters much more and has been sorely lacking.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/01/2010 - 10:35 am.

    Nuts! Of course “it’s” is its. I wish there were a comment editing function as there is on some other boards…

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/02/2010 - 09:05 am.

    The notion that the U must get better at selling itself to students and business is fine, but without sufficient state funding to support a learning environment and services that students need to succeed, how can it?

    We sure as heck need a new governor who understands that, just as flowers do not bloom when deprived of rain, students do not blossom without services that enhance learning.

  4. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/02/2010 - 08:19 pm.

    At the risk of being repetitive, Bernice…

    The central administration at the U of M is virtually a black hole for both funding from the state and tuition revenue.

    What one dean is saying in the material I quoted earlier is that they will soon be paying into the central administration MORE than they pay faculty, and this is coming from the Dean of the Carlson School, which most of us at the U consider to be flush.

    An increase in tuition goes almost entirely to central administration and NOT to improving the quality of education to those paying the increased tuition.

    The money is going SOMEWHERE and I have some ideas about where it is going, namely to subsidize research and to further the ambitious aspirations of the central administration. Many of these projects imply long term financial commitments that should not be entered into unless we some day return to prosperity.

    The system is broken. The students, the faculty, and even the deans realize that we have a fundamental problem with finance at the U.

    To show how bad it is, Dean Finnegan recently said that the institution needs to move to a strategic planning model. Given that the present administration has been talking about strategic planning for five years, this is quite an ironic statement to make.

    Let us hope that we get a new president from outside who does not have an investment in maintaining the current broken system.

    If you want more information about the position of many of the deans at the U on the current disastrous financial situation, please see the post:
    From the University of Minnesota Department of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” ( http://bit.ly/d23dTW )

    It is time to take back our university.

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