DAVID SCOTT has covered a vast distance from his upbringing on a 20-acre farm, or croft, in the Orkney Islands off Scotland to his present position as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Amherst. But his early life on the sparsely populated Orkneys has always been a factor shaping his academic career.
The storm-blasted northern islands were a rich preparatory school for a youth fascinated by the natural world. That interest eventually took him to Oxford University to study nuclear physics, then on to such posts as director for research at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University.
The soft-spoken Orkney islander held various teaching and administrative positions at Michigan State before moving last July to the chancellorship at UMass Amherst, where 26,000 students make it the core of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system. His own experience of working from humble beginnings to the upper reaches of scholarly life gave Dr. Scott a firm commitment to the ``democratization of privilege'' in the academic world.
That commitment may explain his favorite way of describing the current state of public higher education in America: as evolving toward ``the land-grant university for the next century.'' The land-grant colleges and universities, instituted by an act of Congress in the mid-19th century, marked a radical departure. These publicly supported schools were to reach beyond the traditional disciplines of education, law, medicine, and divinity and start generating and dispersing the latest in agricultural and mechanical knowledge. It was a huge step in the democratization of learning.
Land-grant institutions, including the University of Massachusetts, were designed to serve a wider public and support economic growth - two goals that top the agenda for today's colleges, Scott says. Rapid social and technological changes call for ``a different type of education, different ways of reaching students,'' he says. The strong criticism being leveled at higher education - calls for greater efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and revamped curricula - boils down to the need to ``break through and become more responsive,'' in Scott's view.
What needs ``breaking through,'' he says, are the ``barriers'' between disciplines, between campuses, and between the university and the outside world.
That's hardly a perspective unique to Scott. Charles Lenth, director of policy studies for higher education at the Education Commission of the States in Denver talks, for instance, of the need ``to do things better than in the past.... We need to rethink the way we're doing higher education and look horizontally at how to link institutions with off-site instructional centers.''
The University of Massachusetts is finding some ways to form those links. The Amherst campus recently started a mentoring program with middle-school students in nearby Springfield, Mass., which has the second-largest school district in New England and a big enrollment of minorities. The goal is to nurture the students academically and guarantee them admission to UMass on completion of high school.
The chancellor calls this effort, funded by the L.G. Balfour Foundation, ``a major outreach for the university.'' It has the potential of drawing many more black and Hispanic students to Amherst, a campus with a history of racial discord. Interethnic divisions pose another set of barriers Scott would like to lower. ``I feel there's progress,'' he says, pointing to the establishment of cultural centers on campus and ``lots'' of contact between groups. He concedes, however, that feelings of ``alienation and disenfranchisement'' remain.
Another outreach is the university's effort to build bridges between itself, neighboring campuses, and private industry. Scott's Exhibit A is the radio-astronomy laboratory and observatory maintained by UMass Amherst and four other western Massachusetts colleges. The millimeter-length radio-wave technology developed there has applications in transportation, medical imaging, and other fields, Scott says. It has led to one thriving spin-off company, Millitech, located in South Deerfield, Mass.
The radio-astronomy project is about to build a new installation in Mexico. That task, which Scott describes as a step toward ``global networking,'' could spark economic development both in Mexico and Massachusetts, he says. The chancellor proclaims the need to learn ``how to take the research of universities and use it more rapidly to create new companies.'' He calls for a ``synergy across research, teaching, and service.''
But all the reaching out has to be matched by some diligent reaching inward to assess the nuts and bolts of education: courses and teaching practices. This is partly impelled by the public, which lacks confidence in higher education and is suspicious of requests for more funding, according to Scott.
He says it's time to ask whether all the majors now offered are necessary and ``what we are trying to achieve through the curriculum.'' Scott sees a need, for instance, to strengthen general education requirements, whereby humanities majors take science courses and would-be physicists study literature. But the current way of doing that is askew, in his view.
``Now, if you have to take a course in biology and you're an arts major, it's like getting inoculated, so you're immune from doing that again. We have to break that down,'' Scott says. He suggests that general-education demands should extend into the junior and senior years, and that everyone be subject to a ``capstone'' requirement, such as a senior project that would test a student's ability to relate diverse areas of knowledge.
Such ideas could send shivers down the spines of both students and professors used to the current system. But Scott is a believer in a little creative turmoil. He sees universities as having slid from the old image of ``a city of intellect high on a hill'' toward something akin to ``urban sprawl.'' But he believes that may have been necessary to preserve higher education's ``relevance.''
Recalling the term ``multiversity,'' Scott suggests it could be time to progress to a ``transversity,'' geared to ``respond to needs that cut across all borders.''