A "Majority-Minority" Nation Needs a New Definition of the University

We have a strange confluence of factors: the fastest growing industrialized nation with the steepest declining educational attainment. The most innovative of nations capable of astonishing increases in productivity is struggling to maintain sustained economic growth.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Nicholas Kristof recently questioned the relevance of the professoriate in one of his columns in the New York Times. He focused on the familiar allegation that much academic research is merely "academic." Specialists conduct arcane research in monastic isolation and fail to communicate their findings to a broader public. The upshot was that academics have marginalized themselves. I can only assume he meant to sketch the issue in broad strokes for the sake of rhetorical impact.

While I am the first to advocate that teaching and research should address the critical challenges that confront society, I am sure Kristof would allow that specialization is critical if knowledge is to advance. And that achieving the status of a public intellectual would be the goal of more than a few scientists and scholars. But given the complexity of the problems under investigation, communicating insights from research to a broader public will always present a challenge. There is so much important work being done in our nation's colleges and universities that it would be impossible to bring more than a fraction of it to the attention of the media or even the policy community.

But on the contrary, there is nothing remotely marginal about our nation's colleges and universities. The demand for advanced teaching and research, and for the new ideas, products, and processes that drive innovation and economic competitiveness, is at fever pitch and exceeds the currently available supply. In an era of burgeoning demand for higher education, the foremost challenge is to increase the capacity of our public research universities by an order of magnitude.

America's public universities produce more than 70 percent of all baccalaureate degree recipients in the nation. These institutions educate successive generations of leaders in every sphere and produce broadly educated graduates with specialized skills requisite for success in the contemporary workplace. Our nation's public research universities conduct nearly two-thirds of all federally funded research. Through their integrated teaching and research, they spur the discovery and innovation that maintain our standard of living, quality of life, and economic competitiveness.

But the complexity of the challenges that confront our nation demand the further evolution of these institutions. The United States is the fastest growing of the industrialized nations and the unprecedented scale of demographic change shows the nation rapidly moving toward a majority-minority population. As the third most populous nation on the planet, we're on a fast-track trajectory to attain a population of 400 million or, by some estimates, 450 million. But OECD data show that educational attainment in the United States has stagnated, and other indicators present evidence of decline, including graduation rates for high school and college students. And so we have a strange confluence of factors: the fastest growing industrialized nation with the steepest declining educational attainment. The most innovative of nations capable of astonishing increases in productivity is struggling to maintain sustained economic growth. And this is to say nothing of the host of challenges that confront the community of nations, including global climate change, pollution, overpopulation, hunger and poverty, exhaustion of natural resources, and destruction of ecosystems.

Our colleges and universities, and especially our research universities, must take on these challenges at scale and in real time. But most institutions remain entrenched in models that limit their potential. Appropriate historical models from which to derive a course of action commensurate to the challenges that confront us do not exist. Design limitations in our universities hamper the capacity to negotiate rapid change in response to real-time demand. Conventional assumptions and rigid disciplinary constructs hinder adaptability. In order to accelerate the evolution of our universities, we must develop new models focused not only on discovery but also access to a broad demographic and greater engagement to maximize societal impact.

But the limitation is systemic as well. The infrastructure of American higher education is unable to accommodate projected enrollment demands at scale. As a consequence, our leading institutions define their excellence through admissions practices based on exclusion. In order to accommodate the needs of students broadly representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of our nation, America's colleges and universities require greater differentiation as well as new models that integrate excellence with accessibility. The broad outlines of such an endeavor must embrace strategies to advance academic excellence, accessibility to a broad demographic, and maximum societal impact. This is the model of the New American University, which is predicated on academic excellence, inclusiveness to a broad demographic and maximum societal impact. And these are the objectives that guided the reconceptualization of Arizona State University over the past decade.

Our reconceptualization represents an effort to turn a large public university into an adaptive knowledge enterprise in real time and at scale. The differentiated model we are advancing represents an effort to offer accessibility to world-class teaching and research to a broad demographic while seeking solutions to real world challenges. And while our overarching commitment is to provide the best possible education for the students of Arizona, the ASU research enterprise is aligned with critical national goals in such strategic areas as earth and space exploration, sustainability and renewable energy, advanced materials, flexible electronics, healthcare, national security, urban systems design, and STEM education.

ASU represents a new paradigm for the solution-focused research university of the future. The public research university is a highly successful model, but this does not mean that we do not need new and differentiated models that address the needs of the nation in the 21st century more squarely. The success of Arizona State University in bringing world-class academic excellence to a broad demographic should be sufficient to initiate a public dialogue regarding the need for a new charter for American public universities.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community