The modern research university, born at the end of the Civil War, might be unrecognizable in 50 years, according to some of the veteran university administrators who spoke at a symposium on Friday.
At the event, four former and current university presidents – all of whom spent time at the University of Michigan – said American universities face a rapidly growing list of challenges that could lead to a dramatic change in the structure of the modern university.
Speakers at the symposium, “Challenges to Higher Education in the 21st Century,” held in honor of the 50th anniversary of the University’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, proposed ways for universities to become more relevant and more successful in leading the United States to the forefront of the information-driven world.
Syracuse University President Nancy Cantor said the public has become distrustful of universities.
With a college degree primarily seen as a ticket to employment, taxpayers and voters often do not appreciate more abstract subjects like Latin or theoretical mathematics, said Cantor, a former dean and provost at the University of Michigan.
“To argue that there’s classics and then there’s the stuff that makes the world run is very dangerous,” she said.
If universities want to maintain their funding levels and prestige, they must find ways to make themselves relevant to the community at large, she said.
“We all know what doesn’t work,” Cantor said. “It’s saying ‘we have the answers, now give us money.’ “
Still, in a culture where universities are often considered “credentialing factories” used to boost income and create opportunities, the public understands the importance of higher education, she said.
“The public absolutely knows that higher education is the game in town,” Cantor said.
Charles Vest, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the United States will fall behind the rest of the developed world if it cannot produce more college graduates.
Vest, a former dean and provost at the University of Michigan, said universities should collaborate and make knowledge available to the public to create what he calls a “meta-university.”
MIT has taken a step in that direction by creating the OpenCourseWare project.
About 80 percent of MIT professors have put teaching materials for their courses online. Course information from more than 1,800 MIT courses is available to the public.
While many of the site’s users are students and educators, nearly half the visitors to the site are trying to teach themselves about a subject.
MIT has also started an initiative in which its laboratory equipment can be controlled remotely over the Internet by authorized users. Students and faculty without the money to use complex equipment can apply for virtual access to MIT’s labs.
Vest also praised the University of Michigan’s collaboration with Google in the Google Book Search project. Google intends to copy all seven million volumes in the University’s library and make them searchable through an online database.
Although MIT faculty and administrators have discussed the idea of turning OpenCourseWare into a program that would enable learners to earn a degree, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, Vest said.
The project has faced some opposition from faculty who don’t want to make their research or courses public, Vest said. Most professors, however, understand the importance of the free flow of information to modern universities, he said.
University President Mary Sue Coleman, sitting in the front row of the amphitheatre, asked Vest whether the OpenCourseWare project had come under fire from the government for making sophisticated scientific and technological knowledge available worldwide.
The government could possibly try to oppose the open flow of information as a threat to homeland security and the American dominance over the knowledge economy, Vest said.
“I am absolutely astounded that it hasn’t been attacked on those grounds,” Vest said. “Keep your fingers crossed.”
Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt, a member of the 19-member Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, said American higher education is falling behind because it has become increasingly unavailable to underprivileged students.
Summarizing research about the correlations between wealth and college attendance, Duderstadt said the U.S. has created an educational atmosphere where “it’s better to be dumb and rich than smart and poor.”
This atmosphere is in part the result of an educational arms race between the nation’s richest universities and all the others. As elite universities spend millions to draw top faculty and build expensive campuses, poorer universities must spend beyond their means if they hope to continue recruiting talented students.
These costs – along with the additional university expenses after cuts in state funding – are passed along to students as tuition increases, Duderstadt said.
University of Illinois President B. Joseph White later touched on the same point.
White, a former dean of the University of Michigan who also served as interim president in 2002, said the spending spree has affected all but the wealthiest universities.
“Even the people at Harvard don’t feel rich,” he said. “Well, maybe they feel rich. But people at public universities don’t usually feel that way.”
Duderstadt proposed a reinvention of the way the nation subsidizes schooling, including what he calls a “learn grant.”
For each child entering kindergarten, the federal government would create a 529 savings account and deposit $5,000. The state would match that sum with an additional $5,000. Each year, parents or guardians would receive a letter with the size of the learn grant. By the time the student finished high school, interest on the money would be just about enough for four years at a public university, Duderstadt said.
The “learn grant,” which could only be spent on higher education, could provide students from low-income families with the hope of attending college and the stimulus to prepare for it, he said. Duderstadt said the government could take steps to even the playing field between the rich and poor and increase the number of college graduates.
White said public research universities are walking a tightrope, expected to maintain their academic excellence in spite of state funding decreases and complaints from the public about what he called “modest tuition increases.”
Compounding the problem is a reluctance by universities to make any changes to their business models. Administrators often face stiff opposition from faculty when they try something innovative, White said.
“Everybody loves students,” White said. “Almost no one likes administrators.”
Although the presidents pointed out the many challenges, they remained optimistic about the United States’s role as the world leader in higher education.
Duderstadt, for one, ended his speech with a quote from Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip “Pogo.”
“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities,” he said.