PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Last Word
Higher Education in the 21st Century

By Ted Sanders

A new millennium confronts us with a bewildering array of opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, opportunities beckon us in the areas of bio-medicine, communications, information technology, alternative energy sources, new materials, automation, and globalization. On the other hand, challenges, indeed threats, loom before us in the form of social inequalities, terrorism, hunger, balkanization, the destruction of the environment, and endangerment of the world's natural resources.Illustration by Leonardo DaVinci

In the United States, our research universities are being asked to help address many of these issues at a time when they face their own special set of challenges and opportunities.

Just what are some of the difficult challenges in higher education today?

Perhaps the most obvious is the increase in student enrollment, with increasing numbers of students who work full time, support families, and are unable to move to a university environment.

In many states, we see a change in the student mix, with more of the 18 to 24 age group coming from traditionally under-represented groups. For example, the share of African-American and Hispanic college-age students is increasing, but their high-school completion rates are not nearly as high as other groups. They are a source of enormous untapped potential, but grave social problems may result if we fail to properly address this issue.

Employers are now asking higher education to provide continuing education for their employees. We are challenged to bring our educational resources to the client and to use the most appropriate and up-to-date technologies in doing so.

Increasingly, the success of individuals in higher education is dependent upon the quality of our elementary and secondary schools. More than at any time in my memory, there is a demand for stronger joint efforts between university and elementary and secondary schools.

There is also a growing linkage between the research university and the corporate world. This introduces complex issues of copyright, the conversion of research into profitable private relationships, potential conflicts involving the free flow of ideas and technology secrets, and preferences extended to certain businesses and industries.

In this age of a global dynamic economy, new kinds of industries are replacing those we had in the industrial age. We are challenged to prepare people for a world in which they will change careers four or five times. We must break down the walls between the various disciplines and expose students to team learning, team building, and team discovery.

Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California, once observed that a key institution of higher education "the great research university of the western world" is one of the most enduring institutions of society. If one takes the year 1520 as a starting point, there are about 75 institutions in the western world that still exist in recognizable form, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the City Council of Venice, the Parliament of the Isle of Man, the Parliament of Iceland, and 70 universities.

Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These 70 universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways. I am happy to report that in this age of unparalleled change and uncertainty, there are several important constants in our American universities that we have inherited from those original 70 institutions referenced by Kerr.

In the United States there has always been an unwritten social compact between the public and the universities that grants us a unique degree of autonomy and scholarly freedom in exchange for the education of an informed citizenry and workforce.

There has also been an implied understanding that teaching and training involve not just the transfer of specialized or technical information, but also a commitment to developing the whole person. To paraphrase French philosopher Victor Cousins: It is not the political person, the economic person, the scientific person or philosophical person, or even the religious person who holds the solution. Only the whole person can be equipped to find and act on the challenges and opportunities that face us.

As stewards of the world's research universities, we have a collective obligation to ensure that these magnificent entities are at the vital center of our collective past, present, and future.

    Ted Sanders is president of Southern Illinois University.
    This is an abbreviated version of remarks he made at the International Conference on Engineering Education in Ostrava, Czech Republic.