Framing the Future of the Public Research University

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Framing the Future of the Public Research University

September 1, 2015

Over the past year and a half, I have written on the future of the University of Arizona and how our efforts to transform the land-grant model of a public research university are geared to have the greatest and most widely accessible impact for our state and for the other communities around the world. As we work to transform the UA, other colleges and universities throughout the U.S. are engaged in similar efforts, many of them at least partly in response to the challenges for higher education that have emerged in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Shared Characteristics from a Shared History

Viewpoints in the national discussion responding to these challenges are diverse, and many times their differences hinge on particular ways of understanding the history of higher education in the United States. For instance, in July Christopher P. Loss responded to the perspective that higher education is facing a post-golden age existential crisis by arguing that “doubters have been predicting the end of college ever since there was college” (“Past Imperfect,” The Chronicle of Higher Education). He argued that the U.S. model for the public research university, “codified in the land-grant colleges provisions of the Morrill Act of 1862,” had a “real aim” that was “somewhat more down to earth” than is sometimes imagined. He also pointed out that the golden age of higher education (which he identified as “vaguely” having existed in the post WWII era) “doesn’t look so golden” when we consider some of the now generally disavowed beliefs about race, gender, sexuality, and other matters that permeated the academy.

Emphasizing a different view earlier this year, Nicholas B. Dirks looked to the California Master Plan of 1960 as the moment when the currently predominant model for public university systems emerged, giving distinct missions to community colleges, state colleges, and public research universities. Dirks argued that this model “connected excellence in research to the mission of near-universal education.” As he does, I see the productive interaction of research and teaching as central to the continuing success of the research university, despite “a growing belief … that research can no longer be the primary mission of our great universities.” Thus, we need to “give a full-throated” explanation of the ways that university research not only creates “economic and social betterment,” but that it is “crucial to the educational mission.” Or as Loss put it in the concluding remarks to his article, there has always been a productive tension between research and teaching, one that elevates both as they feed into each other.

The question in both of these articles that I will explore in the coming months is how to sustain that productive tension and the vital impact it creates despite the sometimes overwhelming challenges that we face as a profession. As I have said many times before, while all institutions of higher education face similar challenges, their individual approaches to addressing those challenges must emerge from the convergence of their mission, their setting, and the communities they serve. Even with this specificity, our shared history and the common challenges that we face mean that there are common lessons worth adding to the ongoing dialogue. 

Starting with that shared history is vital, and lest we romanticize the “golden age” that Loss critiqued or some other period, it is worthwhile to remember that universities and colleges have always been embedded in the values of their time and responsive to the needs of the communities that they served. The institutions that we now recognize as research universities did not exist earlier in our national history, as many of the earliest colleges were largely ecclesiastical in nature and instructors usually thought of their role as temporary, a step on the way to a clerical or other professional career. Slowly, this model gave way to one in which instructors were expected to be long-term professionals with unique expertise in a given field, a development that contributed to the rise of shared governance, peer review, and academic freedom. These are vital components of the institutions in which we now work and which we often take for granted, despite the itinerate nature of the professoriate in early America and the cyclical tension between academic expertise and populism that Richard Hofstadter maps in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Advocating for the value of intellectual work and the institutional characteristics that sustain it is important and is an ongoing part of the development of American universities.

Facing Shared Challenges to Achieve Mission Goals

I do not mean to suggest that these bedrock academic characteristics are less important because they developed over time. My point is that the vision of colleges and universities as ivory towers displaced or aloof from the rest of the world is inaccurate in important ways. Nevertheless, there are unique characteristics to be found in institutions of higher education that make them distinct from other places that conduct research, teach in some fashion, or seek to create social impact. To preserve those unique characteristics that we value in public universities while transforming them so that they help drive the changes occurring in our society rather than being buffeted by changes that threaten their existence, we need to understand what has made them unique and valuable to our society. We need to ask what structures, practices, and values have given universities and colleges the identities and impact that we value and need so that we can maintain those characteristics as core drivers of our missions.

With public de-investment, the digitization of information flows, competition from for-profit universities, and other pressures, a key institutional challenge is to determine what mission success looks like in this context and how to achieve it.  This is why my previous blog entries have focused so much on impact, which is and should be the key point of evaluation for a public research university's success. Of course, measurement of "impact" is nebulous so metrics and measurements have proliferated in recent years. These tools are valuable but they should not be the only standard for understanding impact. Thus, one topic that I hope to address in the coming months is how to understand student achievement and the value of research and scholarship in ways that do not rely solely on degrees granted, dollars expended, and the like.  With these and other components of the public research university, one way to understand impact broadly in this new fiscal context is in the difference between access and agency.

Research universities have many tools to continue achieving success in their missions by emphasizing engaged agency in their communities. My goal over the next several months will be to explore and comment upon the characteristics that make higher education distinct and to share thoughts on how different universities (primarily public research universities) can sustain and strengthen them today. Important questions and topics that I will address include (in no particular order): 

  1. How do we evaluate success in research and its value? Understanding the links between basic research and its application is vital, but so is a clear view of the more ineffable benefits of this work, which I will seek to describe.
  2. What relationship is there between the size of a university, its output, and the impact that it has in its community and globally? How do different models enable success despite limited resources? As I have begun to do here, I will examine the value that universities add to our lives now in light of their history as a sector of our society.
  3. How do we promote innovation, both in basic research, and in its application? This involves recognition for different kinds of innovation, but it also depends upon effective research administration and resource allocation that support scientists and scholars so that they can focus on their work. The complexity of health sciences research, especially clinical research, poses particular challenges that I will address.
  4. How can we best understand and harness the synergy of teaching and research to encourage the internalization of learning by students? This is a vital characteristic of a university education that builds students’ ability to apply new knowledge in different settings from those in which it is acquired.
  5. How can we best create international partnerships to create positive impact globally? When pursued as a means of leveraging strengths of partner institutions, international collaboration is a vital way that research universities can thrive in the face of current budgetary and political challenges.
  6. How and why does shared governance matter for the research university, and how can we best foster it today for the benefit of our institutions? Also important, how do we encourage and model leadership at all levels and for all functions within the university? I will describe the importance of building a culture of collaboration and leadership that allows shared governance to thrive.
  7. How do we understand and best leverage the impact (economic, social, cultural, and technological) of a university in its home community or state? The more ineffable benefits of research and teaching that I will describe in other posts will be of particular importance in addressing this question.
  8. How can we best engage our alumni to assist in our constant journey of reshaping the university and responding to changing needs in our environments?

In seeking answers to these questions and others that I will address, it is important to note that adapting the design of a university for success in the contemporary world is not a matter of formal refinement or revolutionary change to create a new ideal. Rather, taking account of mission as well as funding, cultural, political, and other contexts, we need to ask how a given university's resources and tools can be used to address the challenges facing our society. That which works today may not work tomorrow, which does not mean that what comes next or what was before is inherently better. By instead understanding our work within an academic tradition that can be adapted and applied to the world in which we now live, public research universities can find a diversity of forms that allow for success, impact, and longevity.