Universities can survive only with radical reform

Schools must break out of their insular mind-set.

Without a doubt, the current economic crisis is unique for its depth, its broad swath of victims, and its speed-of-light reach around the globe. No one is immune, including higher education.

The response? For many university leaders, the first instinct is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Acting on that instinct is a grave mistake.

Instead, what we need is radical reformation. At this defining moment – when our communities and our nation need us more than ever – we must fundamentally reinvent our institutions. We must become more agile, more responsive, less insular, and less bureaucratic. In so doing, we will save ourselves from slouching into irrelevance.

To accomplish the wholesale change that is needed for our students, our nation, and our world, universities must break out of the silo structures – of departments and budgets and mind sets – that have calcified over time. The world's problems do not fit solely inside the bounds of a mechanical engineering department any more than they do an English department. Conducting research, and educating the people who will solve our most pressing problems, with that stale pedagogical model is irrational and ineffective.

As always, students are way ahead of us, and we need to take their lead. The standard operating principle of today's Millennial generation is fully collaborative. The way they learn is no exception.

One example: The US Department of Energy sponsors a Solar Decathlon, a competition among colleges and universities to design and construct the most energy-efficient solar-powered house. Ohio State's team is made up of 60 students from 20 different majors. Some smaller institutions have joined forces with one another. Santa Clara University, for example, is partnering with the California College of the Arts. Canada's Team Alberta includes students from four different colleges. Now more than ever, we all must see the connection between enterprising, democratic, and resourceful examples such as this and a future of education that fosters creativity, innovation, and daring.

While we are attempting to keep pace with our students and breaking down barriers inside our four-year institutions, university leaders must also aggressively seek new kinds of collaborations – with business and industry, government, and advocacy groups of all kinds.

Higher education changes lives, improves communities, feeds the world, sustains art and culture, cures diseases, and develops the technologies that will one day free us from dependency on fossil fuels. By joining forces with local businesses we share the fruits of education, assure our relevancy, and give external partners reason to invest in us.

Perhaps most important, we must establish richer partnerships with one another, particularly community colleges. They are the first-responders, retraining laid-off workers, creating new programs in such fields as green-energy technology, and doing so much more – with so much less.

Recently, Ohio State announced two new partnerships with Columbus State Community College. One is a new National Science Foundation-funded STEM Ability Alliance, which will increase the number of disabled students who earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. The other, the Pipeline to Medical College program, will enroll greater numbers of traditionally underrepresented students in medical school. Because students will complete their first two years of course work at the community college, their degree costs will be substantially reduced. Because they will be mentored and supported, their path to graduation will be greatly eased.

Those projects are a start, but they are not enough. Not today.

In addition to reaching across town, we must also reach across oceans. The deep interconnections among global economies, confidence, people, and plights have never been more apparent.

We are duty-bound to educate graduates who are prepared for global responsibilities. To start, we must ensure that all of our students possess passports, enabling them to take full advantage of opportunities to study, work, and live abroad.

To be sure, changing centuries-old definitions of teaching and scholarship is not easy. But moving beyond archipelagic, individual departments – and even beyond our campuses – will cultivate faculty collaboration, spark innovation, and stimulate new areas of promising research.

Having led universities for nearly 30 years, I firmly believe that these uncommonly trying times present us with extraordinary opportunities – to think differently, to collaborate more fully, to reconfigure ourselves for the long-term benefit of our students and our world.

The effort may seem akin to changing an elephant into a ballerina. But to meet the unprecedented demands of this age, we cannot remain who we are. This is higher education's moment to step up, find a new way forward, and put our shoulders squarely to it. Our future is a thoroughly shared one.

E. Gordon Gee is the president of The Ohio State University. A version of this essay was given as the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education in February.

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