I write a quarterly column for the Computing Research Association (CRA)'s newsletter, Computing Research News (CRN). The following is a preview of my upcoming column, which will appear in the May 2009 issue.
The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, once remarked, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." So it is with economic and social crises; they can be understood retrospectively, but must be experienced in the moment. Without doubt, these are extraordinary times, with global socioeconomic transformations most of us have heretofore experienced only via historical accounts and the stories of our elders.
Public universities are experiencing state budget recisions and reductions, and private institutions have seen the market value and operating income from endowments decline precipitously. University staff positions are being eliminated, unpaid furloughs are common, and even tenured faculty members are worried, given the financial exigency clause in most contracts. Future students fret about the cost of a college education, current students are struggling to pay tuition, and graduates face bleak job prospects across diverse disciplines.
Reinventing the University
Although these extraordinary times bring extraordinary challenges, they also bring extraordinary opportunities. Because necessity really is the mother of invention, we have a generational occasion to rethink university programs, priorities and structures; refocus corporate governance, markets and priorities; and sharpen government policies, structures and strategies. Let's consider a few lessons, leavened by history.
The modern, American university has evolved from a finishing school for the male heirs of landed gentry to a much more inclusive engine of social change, intellectual discovery and economic growth. Each punctuated step in that evolution was triggered by social and economic upheaval, from the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant institutions, through the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, which opened college education to returning veterans, to the Great Society legislation of the 1960s, which addressed odious injustice and further democratized educational access.
The nature and importance of colleges and universities and their relation to our future continue to change. The proximate skills acquired via the university experience may help land one's first job, convey the lifelong right to cheer for the athletic teams and forever encumber one with annual calls for donations from the alumni association. However, when technological change can dissolve entire industries within just a few years, and grim statistics highlight the demise of lifelong employment, those skills alone will not suffice to land one's fifth or eighth job.
This suggests that we must ask fundamental questions about the nature and role of universities, and we must renegotiate the social compact between citizens and educators. What is the appropriate balance between intellectual inquiry and practical engagement? What constitutes engaged scholarship? What are the "mechanical and industrial arts" for the 21st century? What are the verities, the intellectual and operational truths that now dance as shadows in Plato's Cave? In short, what is the 21st century research university and its rightful role?
I humbly suggest that universities, government and industry must rethink the nature of university education and engagement, shifting aggressively to lifelong, rather than punctuated education, and fostering multilateral science and technology incubation and support. We are not imprisoned in the ivory tower, nor are we cloistered from personal engagement.
The American research university has changed radically and repeatedly over the past century. It emerged from Cold War as a government-funded instrument of social change, economic competitiveness and national security. There is no reason, indeed ample precedent to the contrary, to believe that it will not continue to evolve rapidly and radically. The current culture is not sacrosanct, nor should it be. We in computing should be at the vanguard, shaping the definitions and the future of education, research and service.
A Final, Personal Note
As a member of the CRA Board for the past decade, it has been my pleasure to work with all of you on a topic near and dear to my heart – the future of computing research, education and policy. Whether on the Board or in the community, you have always answered the call to service, regardless of the task. It has also been a joy to work with the CRA staff in Washington, DC. They work tirelessly for our community, often with inadequate public acknowledgment of the importance of their contributions. On behalf of the entire computing research community, to them and to you, I want to say publicly and clearly – thank you!
In addition to being a member of the CRA Board, it has been my privilege to serve as CRA Chair for the past four years, and it is time for the inevitable and always beneficial changing of the guard. I am delighted that Peter Lee has been elected as my successor. It has been my pleasure to work with Peter in a variety of roles over the past several years. In each case, I have seen him bring new ideas, passion and enthusiasm, and I know CRA will be in great hands under his leadership.
Although my term is ending, rest assured that I will continue to be an active partner and participant in computing research policy and strategy, working with CRA and other organizations to advance the cause of computing. Remember, it's the love, the passion and the wonder that make computing, indeed any calling, worthwhile and fulfilling.