Leaders, Scholars Urged Not to Neglect Higher Education’s Social Goals

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a time when colleges and universities are being called on to cut costs and produce more graduates, institutional leaders must remember that their primary purpose is to produce thinkers, be of service to society and facilitate research that benefits the nation and advances human understanding.

 

Such were the remarks that Don Michael Randel, a longtime university administrator who now serves as president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, made as keynote speaker Friday at a luncheon of the 68th annual meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans.

 

The private affair was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which featured a variety of panels and workshops—including one on mentoring students and faculty of color—that was sponsored by Diverse.

 

Randel made his comments in answering “the productivity question” in a far-ranging speech in which he defended the merits of research for research’s sake and extolled the virtues of human interaction at a time when “disruptive technology” has become a widely revered force on the higher education landscape.

 

Randel said the answer to the “productivity question” will depend on what the product of higher education is thought to be.

 

“The product is surely more than some target number of undergraduate degrees per unit of time,” Randel said in a comment that sounded a tone much different than the one being struck by the Obama administration with its goal to have the United States lead the world with the highest share of college graduates by 2020.

 

“The product of higher education across all institutions, though it differs across types of institutions, must include not just certificates and degrees but genuinely thoughtful undergraduates as well as advanced and professional graduates, research in the national interest and for its own sake, and service to society of many kinds,” Randel said.

 

Randel delivered his speech, titled “The Market Made Me Do It,” just a couple of hours after President Barack Obama delivered a speech on college affordability at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor during his third day of travels following his State of the Union address.

 

President Obama said that the government “can’t just keep on subsidizing skyrocketing tuition” and announced that his administration was “putting colleges on notice” that they “can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year.”

 

“If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down,” Obama said in announcing plans to steer more federal aid toward colleges that cuts costs. “We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don’t.”

 

In many ways, Randel’s speech seemed like an answer to the president’s speech.

 

“Could higher education be more efficient? The short answer is ‘yes,’” Randel said, adding that doing so would necessarily involve faculty reductions or student increases and assigning greater teaching responsibilities to faculty like the days of old.

 

But such measures eventually will compromise the quality of education.

 

“Sooner or later, increases in productivity will begin to decline and reach a limit—if we believe that in an education worthy of the name there must always remain some core of direct human interaction,” Randel said.

 

Randel said there is no disruptive technology that can replace a grownup asking a young person to write about something of substance and then sitting with that young person and challenging the student “to observe more acutely and to frame a stronger argument in support of an original idea.”

 

“This kind of education is expensive on a per student basis because it requires attention to students one at a time,” Randel said, “and after a certain point it is not subject to productivity gains.”

 

Randel’s speech was one of several at the AAC&U conference that touched on the ideas espoused within the conference theme, “Shared Futures, Difficult Choices: Reclaiming a Democratic Vision for College Learning, Global Engagement, and Success.”

 

Many speakers emphasized the need for more student engagement.

 

One such panel sought to elevate the discussion on what student engagement entails and what form it should take by delineating different types of engagement.

 

In framing the issue, John Saltmash, co-director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, drew a distinction between what he referred to as “technocratic engagement” in which knowledge from within the university is applied externally into communities that decide what the problems are that need to be solved, versus democratic engagement, which is more collaborative and reciprocal and “has a wider purpose around building a culture of democracy.”

 

As an example, Lorlene Hoyt, a city planner who is now a visiting scholar at the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, spoke of a project in which faculty and residents in Lawrence, Mass., collaborated to convert an old mill into an energy-efficient mixed-use complex with apartments, child care and commercial space.

 

At the Diverse-sponsored session, titled “The Critical Role of Mentoring in Increasing Graduates and Faculty of Color,” attendees got tips from Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, Professor and Chair of the Division of Human Centered Computing in the School of Computer at Clemson University, and Deborah Martinez, Executive Director at the International Ultraviolet Association and a consultant for Diversity Programs and Partnerships with MentorNet, a web-based mentoring organization that seeks to foster diversity in engineering and science.

 

Gilbert and MentorNet are both past recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering.

 

Among other things, Gilbert suggested that mentors be sought among faculty who had mentors themselves and who are interested in serving as mentors. He also suggested that reward systems be set up to provide an incentive for senior faculty to mentor junior faculty.

 

“If you’re going to institutionalize something like this, you have to make it worthwhile,” Gilbert said. He said rewards can entail credit for mentoring in the service category of a faculty member’s annual performance review to actual awards that include honorariums and plaques.

 

Martinez, who described MentorNet as the “eHarmony of mentoring,” said one of the things that makes MentorNet successful is that web-based communication supplants the need for face-to-face interaction between mentor and protégé and thereby saves time.

 

Asked for her thoughts on best practices, Martinez said the matter is straightforward.

 

“From my own experience, be honest, listen and participate,” Martinez said.

 

In a discussion about the merits of having a mentor of the same background, Martinez quoted a colleague who said the most important thing is not the mentor’s background but giving the protégé encouragement.

 

Editor’s Note: In a venture spearheaded by Cox, Matthews & Associates, the publisher of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, Dr. Juan Gilbert has been the developer of Applications Quest, a data mining software tool for academic admissions and human resources departments.