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What Are Universities For?

09 Feb Posted by in Academics | 4 comments
What Are Universities For?
 

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk on the subject of the purpose of universities, to a fairly general audience of people interested in George Mason but not for the most part academics (though some colleagues were there too). I won’t claim my thoughts were terribly profound or original, but the audience seemed to find it useful (I admit: it was National Compliments Day, so one never knows), and I thought a summary might prove helpful to some readers. Given the current debates over higher education, the summary might even be mildly controversial in some quarters, where there is a desire to cut universities back to some simpler core.

The basic answer is obvious, and is among other things reflected in faculty evaluations: we seek to educate, to advance research, and to offer several kinds of outreach. I should note however that one of the comments I got on my talk, from the friendly nonacademics, was a sense that the triple range was not entirely familiar, that some think universities exist to offers classes (and presumably some sports), and that’s about it.

Education is of course the first function on the list, though as we know the faculty reward system does not reflect this as fully as it might. We want to help students learn. In public universities particularly, we want to introduce a wide range of qualified students to the opportunity to learn at this level.

What kind of learning is the next question, and here is where some complexity comes in. We want to provide concentrated training in some discipline or mix of discipline, but we also seek to provide exposure to various subjects, to an array of methods and insights, and to a capacity for critical thinking that goes beyond the specialty.  Liberal-professional was a combination once popular, and I think it still has resonance.  For we’re seeking a threefold result.  First, skills and knowledge that will help students achieve a successful career (a job, but also wider capabilities that will serve in what will hopefully be a long professional life; the job focus encouraged by the recent recession is simply too narrow).  Second, the skills, knowledge and values that will make for good, constructive citizenship, at several levels.  And third, a still wider, if sometimes slightly random exposure to other types of learning that can make up a good life. I mentioned in my talk how the single course I most value from college was in modern art, a subject fairly distant from my major, and chosen almost accidentally as part of an interest in stretching myself a bit; I remember and enjoy the results, as a platform for appreciating art, many times a year. The comment triggered similar reactions from many others in the audience, a confirmation, I think, that a good college education justifiably embraces this wider educational role along with career preparation and the advancement of citizenship.

The education function, finally, is not static, and it’s not just a matter of classroom exposure. The current emphasis on reconsidering some traditional teaching methods, particularly toward more active student participation, fits the basic educational goals admirably, but it adds to the challenge of fulfilling this first function well.  And we learn increasingly that a good education provides opportunities for activities and exchanges beyond the classroom, another area where good universities are increasingly engaged but one which adds (desirably) to the necessary educational infrastructure.

Research is function number two. Not all colleges and universities venture a systematic research commitment, but many do, and for three major (and related) reasons, aside from the undeniable prestige involved. First, research expands understanding, producing new knowledge in a variety of fields.  Second, research can generate solutions or partial responses to an array of social needs, from health to technology to policy.  And finally, research activity contributes directly to educational quality, introducing students to the process of discovery, and critically assessing discovery, adding excitement and urgency to the educational experience.

The challenge in moving beyond emphasizing the research function is of course trying to help sort out the types of research and creative activity that adds some measurable value, from the kind of scholarship that turns out to be directed mainly to a narrow, self-contained audience.  Here I think we have some work to do – indeed, the challenge is and should be ongoing – so that we can legitimately insist on the importance of research, and not just immediately applied varieties, while paying real attention to broader significance.  At Mason we’ve adopted the phrase “of consequence” in our research endeavor, and it may help us seek an appropriate standard.

Outreach is the final category.  Public universities like George Mason serve a variety of regional functions beyond simply turning out students and expanding research. They may be major artistic centers. They help provide quality in P-12 schools systems. They offer regional economic information, vital to business and policy groups alike. The list here is long, and I am continually impressed with how many programs and faculty are deeply engaged.  But we also have national and global outreach opportunities.  Nationally, many faculty are active in advancing professional standards and research collaborative; they contribute to policy discussions; they contribute to media presentations of various sorts.  Globally, universities like Mason form partnerships with a variety of counterparts elsewhere, hoping through collaboration to address mutual problems and improve relationships – often in ways that go well beyond what formal governments can achieve.

The three basic functions of universities interrelate, of course, and at best support each other, but they add up to a considerable list.  Increasing public awareness of the combination, and the contributions of each component, is clearly desirable.  And within the academy, when we hear faculty note how busy they are, how many demands they are trying to satisfy, it’s clear that they’re often stating no more than the facts.  We are trying to do a lot, to be useful in several overlapping ways.  That’s part of the excitement of higher education, even amid the current challenges, but it generates an undeniably ambitious agenda.