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October 13, 2003

Public research universities must adapt to face challenges of the 21st century, panelists say

By Jennifer McNulty

At a time of rapid social transformation, public research universities must be models of adaptability in order to fulfill their dual missions of excellence and accessibility.

James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, speaks during a panel discussion on "Creating innovative curricula responsive to a changing world." Other panelists, seated from left, are Bruce Chizen, Adobe Systems CEO; Phillip D. Long, senior strategist, Academic Computing Enterprise at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools; and Lynda Goff, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at UCSC. Goff was the panel moderator and cochaired the symposium. Photo: Louise Donahue

That was the message delivered Friday by more than a dozen experts in higher education, business, and government during the University of California Clark Kerr Symposium, “Rethinking the Student Experience in the 21st Century Public Research University.”

Participants frequently cited demographic changes, budget shortfalls, and the revolution in information technology as factors behind the challenges facing public research universities.

Those same factors must bolster the University of California’s commitment to “lead the world in quality and serve the people in quantity,” said UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood during opening remarks to the gathering of about 300 people.

Noting that public universities bestow two-thirds of all bachelor’s degrees and 75 percent of all doctorates in the United States, Greenwood called public institutions “the crucible for social progress in this next generation.”

Four panel discussions during the daylong conference focused on the benefits of a diverse student body, the creation of innovative curricula, and the challenge of developing engaged citizens who will make meaningful contributions to society.

Participants cited numerous roadblocks to progress, including the state and federal budget crisis, Proposition 209 and other restrictions of race in admissions, a faculty promotion system that focuses on research achievements, and the hyper-specialization of academic departments. Still, panelists eagerly shared their ideas and experiences, and they expressed a determination to help public research universities meet the challenges before them.

Soaring enrollments and budget cuts

Richard C. Atkinson, president emeritus of the University of California, delivered the keynote address, focusing on the tension between soaring enrollments and budget cuts that may require the university to limit enrollments.

“That’s a tough message to deliver, but here’s an even harder question: How would you select from that smaller pool?” asked Atkinson. Admitting the top 10 percent of UC eligible students, for example, instead of the top 12.5 percent as mandated by the state’s master plan for higher education, would cause a dramatic drop in the number of underrepresented students, he noted.

Although it has historically been the faculty’s role to decide admissions criteria, Atkinson predicted that the UC Board of Regents will have a hand in the decision. “They won’t sit by and let faculty do this alone,” he said.

Then, little more than a week into his retirement, Atkinson chose the symposium to “say something I would never say as president.”

Citing statistics that show California ranks eighth among the 50 states in the percentage of residents who pursue higher education, but 46th in the percentage of students who get bachelor’s degrees, Atkinson said educators need to increase the number who graduate with four-year degrees.

“Two-year institutions are not ensuring that their students transfer to four-year colleges and universities,” said Atkinson, adding that he’d never talked about the problem before because he feared it would sound like criticism of community colleges.

Rather, he said, California needs to revisit the master plan and expand UC’s current requirement to enroll 12.5 percent of eligible students, and California State University’s mandate to accept the top 33 percent.

Progress on diversity

During a panel moderated by Social Sciences Dean Martin M. Chemers, two former UC chancellors discussed the progress the university has made in building a racially diverse student body in the past 50 years.

“When I began teaching at Berkeley in 1959, only 5 percent of the students were not white,” said Ira Michael Heyman of UC Berkeley. “The health of this society requires that we have well-educated people of all backgrounds prepared to take leadership positions to avoid an apartheid-like system.”

Students benefit from a diverse student body because it is, for many of them, their first opportunity to interact with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. “If we want to prepare people to share leadership positions, the university is often their first opportunity to get to know one another,” he said.

Charles Young, chancellor emeritus of UCLA and now president of the University of Florida, hailed the university’s efforts to reach out to groups that have not had an equal opportunity to compete and advance, and he said the university is better because of it. “The university is greater now than before diversity efforts were begun,” he said. “Affirmative action and diversity did not decrease the quality. It increased it.”

Judith Ramaley, assistant director of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation and former president of the University of Vermont, observed that the discussion of diversity reflects the “engaged” nature of today’s public research universities, and she called for a broader research agenda focused on “important problems” with a strong component devoted to the application of knowledge.

“We learn better when our knowledge has consequences, not only for ourselves but for the things we care about,” said Ramaley.

Funding problems

Heyman lamented that the withdrawal of funding from UC’s K-12 outreach programs will shrink the pool of academically eligible underrepresented students who might attend the university. But Young, sounding what he called an “even less optimistic” note, bemoaned the “anti-intellectualism” that appears to be fueling funding policy decisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Policy makers repeatedly cite education as their top priority, but their actions don’t reflect that, said Young.

“How do we maintain quality and get diversity?” asked Young. “We’re going to have to charge more to maintain quality, and provide access to the students who can’t afford it.”

Underscoring the practical value of fostering a diverse student body, Atkinson noted that Latinos are a “powerful, powerful force in the state legislature,” and they expect the university to provide access to everyone. “We must serve all Californians, or UC is going to be in great trouble,” he said.

The percentage of Latinos in California has increased from 12 percent in 1970 to a projected 52 percent in 2010, he said. “If the state is going to succeed, the university is going to play a key role in harmonizing relations between different groups in the state,” said Atkinson.

Under Atkinson’s leadership, the UC system forged a partnership with community colleges to increase the number of students who transfer to four-year institutions, and the dual admissions program was created to give high school graduates another avenue to enter the university after attending community college.

Asked by Atkinson to develop UC’s outreach programs after retiring from his post as chancellor of UCSC, Karl S. Pister spent several years building a successful operation. Expressing frustration that his successor is now being asked to continue with “no materials, no workers, and no budget,” Pister described a similar disconnect between the university’s opportunity to tap the “idealism of the young and their sense of community service” and a narrowly defined faculty culture.

“Until the application of knowledge is seen as as important as the discovery of knowledge, and the development of people is seen as as important as the development of knowledge, until we understand that in our institutions, there’s little hope for change,” said Pister.

Pister was joined by former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University, in the panel discussion about creating an engaged citizenry, which was moderated by Humanities Dean Wlad Godzich. Panetta said students today do not consider politics relevant to their lives. “It isn’t real to them,” he said. “It’s like another channel on TV.”

Panetta called for a mandatory two-year national service program for all students, saying that the country must instill in its citizens a deep understanding of the value and importance of public service.

Universities can also help develop more informed and engaged citizens by focusing on “problem-driven rather than discipline-driven” issues, said Kennedy. Teamwork and faculty-student interactions, both informal and research-based, will also help, he said. “We’re terribly good at teaching kids to compete, except we don’t often give them opportunities to compete in teams," said Kennedy.

Innovative curricula

Moderated by Lynda Goff, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at UCSC and cochair of the symposium, the panel discussion about innovative curricula focused on ways to tap technology to make learning more engaging and to reform doctoral programs to reflect student needs.

James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, said technology is already transforming the learning process and will have “profound, rapid, and unpredictable” impacts on the university.

Today’s students are in constant communication and engage in “peer-to-peer” learning, Duderstadt said. “This generation is going to rip instruction out of the classroom,” he predicted. “They may tolerate lectures for now, but sooner or later, they will demand change.”

New technology places a premium on fields like art, music, architecture, and engineering that use the side of the brain that creates new things, he said, noting that the university’s traditional strength lies in the analysis and synthesis of information. Given that mismatch, the role of the university should be to provide the infrastructure on which new forms of informal learning can evolve. “But we can’t let the faculty drive this,” he cautioned. “The students will drive it.”

Phillip Long, senior strategist for the academic computing enterprise at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a UCSC graduate, described his institution’s experiment with active learning (see Currents story) and hailed the value of technology-assisted learning as “extraordinarily engaging.”

At the graduate level, Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, cited “unacceptably high attrition rates” of 50 to 70 percent in doctoral programs and said institutions need to break down the barriers between disciplines and do a better job of preparing graduate students for work outside of academe.

Business perspective

Bringing perspective from business, Bruce Chizen, chief executive officer of Adobe Systems, laid out a list of the qualities he seeks in employees, including a global perspective, a combination of specialized skills and an understanding of business, a spirit of innovation, a focus on the future, an ability to work as part of a team as well as to motivate and lead others, and a passion for the job. Given the growing availability of qualified workers overseas, where salaries are one-sixth what they are in Silicon Valley, Chizen called on universities to help prepare graduates who will command the higher salaries.

“If we’re going to pay someone six times the salary, they’d better be much more qualified than we’ll find in places like China and India,” said Chizen.

The final panel of the day, moderated by Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor John B. Simpson, was dedicated to ways to prepare students to make meaningful contributions to society. Francisco Hernandez, vice chancellor of student affairs at UCSC and cochair of the symposium, was joined by William Ladusaw, professor of linguistics at UCSC and former provost of Cowell College.

Both participants described the strengths of UCSC’s unique college system in building curricular and cocurricular experiences to benefit students.

Building community

Colleges build community and provide opportunities for collaboration, said Hernandez, adding that professional student affairs staff can also actively support the core course curriculum and help build multicultural understandings. Colleges provide opportunities to “educate each other about each other” and are “supportive places to express ourselves and our diverse views,” he said.

Ladusaw described colleges as a place where faculty can “model the behavior and let [students] play at the game,” but he acknowledged that the colleges pose a challenge for faculty, who have a tendency to “turn every educational question into an academic pursuit.”

“The university campus needs to be viewed as an educational institution that’s not only an academic institution,” said Ladusaw.

Pister picked up on the challenge facing faculty. Referring to his tenure as chancellor of UCSC, Pister said he came to UCSC “with great hopes to really rebuild the college system” but was hampered by the fact that college involvement isn’t part of the faculty reward system.

In her closing remarks, Greenwood cited the strength of UCSC’s residential environment, which “integrates social experiences and helps students overcome prejudice and think through their goals.”

“Many larger research universities have trouble with this because they capture students only in the classrooms and in student groups,” said Greenwood. With nearly 50 percent of UCSC’s students living on campus, the colleges provide a “unique opportunity” to reach students.

“We have very seasoned, highly professional student affairs staff and faculty who are committed to the colleges,” she said. “We need to integrate their efforts better. Faculty don’t have to do it all. They can provide the intellectual basis in concert with our student affairs professionals.”

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