It's been said many times. The accelerating pace of change is challenging extant social structures, economic mobility in the United States is declining, and many millennials may never experience the economic success of their parents. Globalization and automation are increasing manufacturing efficiency and output while requiring fewer workers with different skills. We face continuing global population growth and demographic shifts; sectarian forces are creating a global diaspora; environmental sustainability and climate change are existential threats; health care costs continue climbing while accessibility recedes; and social justice and equality remain elusive. Unsurprisingly, people are deeply worried about their future and that of their families, regardless of political persuasion. In turn, this stress has stirred the cauldron of political rhetoric, while reasoned debate, political compromise, and purposeful, strategic action have become ever more difficult.
As states continue to grapple with revenue shortfalls and mandatory spending commitments, others are publicly questioning the value of higher education as an essential public good. Meanwhile, the great recession has accelerated the decline in state funding for public universities, limiting their ability to respond, and forcing rises in tuition to help offset declining state support. Given these challenges, how do we in academe address the wicked problems now facing our global village?
Public University Roles and the Social Compact
By analogy with William Jevons' four functions of money, let me suggest that we in research universities have three functions, each of which matters in equal measure. First, we create new knowledge; that is the essence of research and scholarship, the defining attribute of a research university, one that distinguishes it from institutions focused solely on teaching. Second, we transmit knowledge and skills to a new generation; we educate and inform, not just with long-known facts but also with fresh insights from recent scholarship. Finally, we engage society with our knowledge and expertise; at our best, we address societal issues and challenges with new found capability that enlightens, empowers and improves the lives of others.
Though basic research, by definition, often lacks immediate or obvious applications, when we fail to communicate and demonstrate the importance of research via clear and telling examples of past success or future possibility, we abrogate our support. (That indispensable smartphone rests on decades of basic research in physics and computer science.) When we fail to connect education to the needs and opportunities of our citizens, we lose our relevance. (Those pharmacists, nurses, dentists and medical doctors trained by universities serve our communities.) Most dangerously, when we fail to engage society in times of need, we sacrifice our place of honor and respect. (Our partnerships on flood management and our support for business startups help ensure the well-being and economic success of our communities.)
And the Horse You Rode in On
Polls show that professors still rank far ahead of used car salespeople and members of Congress in both respect and trust, but we have slipped a few notches in the public's eye. Sometimes, our language and mien often give credence to those who believe academics are the very embodiment of the Ben Franklin adage, "He was so learned that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant that he bought a cow to ride on."
When we take umbrage (a fine academic phrase, but one not commonly heard on any street non-adjacent to a university) at public questions and criticism, denigrating it as uninformed pique, we often confirm Franklin's caricature of one possessing knowledge but lacking wisdom. We must be willing to reflect on the reasons for criticism, engage in thoughtful discussion with our critics, and respond appropriately. As that old Scot, Rabbie Burns put it,
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
Collaborative Partnership: The Future
As academics, we must engage our stakeholders and partners in their context and address their legitimate problems and concerns, and we must do so honestly, humbly and thoughtfully. In so doing, we will help them and also help ourselves, educating one another. Solution to complex, wicked problems requires many insights, diverse perspectives, new ideas, and determined commitment. We in academia do not have all the answers, but we do have knowledge, skills and insights that are of value.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is Man
We abandon academic hubris and a sense of entitlement. We talk less and listen more. We roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty, and engage society. When we do, the true conversation begins.
Now excuse me, while I go mount my bovine steed, er horse, and head into town.