In order to solve a problem you must be able to identify it – but in the current context for higher education that is less obvious that you might first think. If you set out to design the next generation airliner, say the Boeing 787, everyone understands that if you elegantly solve all the design problems, but leave off the engines, you are unlikely to sell many aircraft, and even less likely to get passengers from Boston to Shanghai.
About David M Dooley
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This past Thursday, the University of Rhode Island celebrated the creation of the Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement. It was a special moment for URI because it highlighted the vision, dedication, and work of many talented individuals among the faculty, staff, and administration of the university.
Recently our URI community suffered two devastating losses: the deaths of Erica Knowles, a senior studying journalism and women’s studies, and Professor Peng Wang, a young faculty member in Chemical Engineering and Pharmaceutical Science. Each loss leaves a gaping hole in our community – voids that only they could fill. This past Saturday we gathered to mourn their loss and to celebrate their lives.
The costs of higher education have been steadily rising, and at a rate that exceeds the consumer price index as a measure of inflation. For public colleges and universities, the underlying reason (as I have pointed out previously) is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by state governments. The behavior of state governments in this regard is not fundamentally irrational: in the face of ever increasing costs for such things as mandated entitlements, health care, public safety, corrections, and pensions, funding for higher education was increasingly viewed as discretionary.
Research universities like URI are uniquely positioned to provide such an education because research, discovery, and experiential learning are intrinsically a part of what we do. The learning that occurs when students are asked to work on problems that have not been solved, or to analyze data or information that has not previously been examined, or to create something that hasn’t been made before, is not only essential but unique.
In the 21st century, how should the University of Rhode Island, and other land-grant universities, prepare their students for “the several pursuits and professions in life”? In many respects, this question is a more difficult one now than at the beginning of the land grant era. For one thing, the majority of our students will no longer make their living, or build their career, in endeavors associated with agriculture.
The University of Rhode Island is charged, as are all land-grant institutions, with providing both “liberal and practical education” to our students. This clause is a cogent example of the highly innovative vision for public higher education laid out in the Morrill Act. It is every bit as relevant in the 21st century as it was in 1862. But the importance of providing both liberal and practical education has perhaps never been more evident. More so than at any time in our past, the modern university’s role is to prepare students for jobs and entire careers that do not yet exist.
It is a desirable and necessary characteristic, a consequence of academic freedom and shared governance, and one of the important attributes of university leadership. Deliberation, consultation, and participation generally have been, and should continue to be, hallmarks of decision-making in higher education. Colleges and universities can still be accurately characterized as “conservative” in the sense that they respect tradition, believe that much can be learned from history, and are cautious about change.
University leadership is primarily derived from the work of faculty and students engaged in scholarship and learning. It flows from the generation and dissemination of knowledge, from the critical analysis and dissection of the politics and culture of societies, from conveying the lessons of history, from opening minds to culture, perspectives, and languages other than their own, and from the interpretation of life through the arts. This is how universities principally provide leadership.
There are multiple, important areas where the leadership of the nation’s public universities could become a critical factor in surmounting the challenges and difficulties that currently confront us. We need to articulate and consistently demonstrate the importance of constructive engagement with ideas and positions that differ from one’s own. We should insist on the appropriate use of scientific findings, quantitative analysis, data analysis, and rational discourse in shaping public policy.