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Commentary & Opinion

Karen Hitchcock: The Meaning of a University

Earlier this month, David Brooks, the well-known New York Times columnist, published an op-ed entitled, “The Practical University”.  In the context of the rapidly-expanding world of online education, Mr. Brooks is correct when he states that we are forced to ask the question, “What is a university for?” His answer: “…universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, technical… and practical.” To date, some 452 individuals have either submitted comments about Mr. Brooks’ answer to that question, or have weighed in themselves on this critical matter.

While it is clear that technologic advances have allowed the creation of new paradigms for knowledge delivery which appear to be more efficient than current educational practices, the real question is: are they effective? Do, for example, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have a place in the learning process? Will MOOCs, as stated by Mr. Brooks, provide our young people with an additional approach to the acquisition of knowledge, especially “technical knowledge” – that knowledge essential to the detailed understanding of a particular issue or task”? I think the obvious answer to that question is “yes”.

However, what we are now facing is the deeper issue of whether such online experiences will no longer be optional but, rather, will be required in order to meet our country’s ever-increasing demand for postsecondary education in the face of tremendous financial constraints. And, if so, what are we losing in the process? The current approach to undergraduate higher education – an on-site, rigidly prescribed sequence of courses designed to provide depth in a particular area, coupled with the kind of curricular breadth which will foster intellectual growth – is becoming prohibitively expensive. If all our qualified high school graduates are to have the opportunity to advance intellectually, even as they acquire the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen areas of work, cost-effective paradigm shifts will be necessary in how we teach and how we evaluate both achievement and competence. Indeed, rigorous methods of evaluation will be an essential element of any future transformative change in the delivery of higher education … evaluations which are acceptable to the university as well as future employers, and which accurately reflect the different kinds of knowledge essential to all truly educated young women and men. Clearly, careful analysis and study will be needed to determine if rigorously-evaluated, online experiences will help us to address our nation’s expanding educational needs, and do it in a way which does not diminish the quality of the overall learning experience.

And, we must carry out such an analysis in the context of the entirety of the university.  Mr. Brooks, unfortunately, limited his definition of a university to the delivery of information. But universities do so much more than that. They have a unique mission in that they not only transmit knowledge – or educate- but they also preserve knowledge and, critically, generate new knowledge and insights through research and scholarship. Exposure to such an environment of discovery – working one-on-one with their professors as they generate new knowledge - constitutes one of the major advantages on-site students enjoy as opposed to purely online educational experiences. One cannot develop new educational approaches without acknowledging the conscious choice our nation made to combine teaching and research in the same institutions. We need to ensure that our students continue to benefit from participation in such a rigorous, analytical learning environment. Finding ways to monetize MOOCs, or to finance expanding undergraduate enrollments will not, alone, address our issues as a nation committed to high quality postsecondary education. We must also ensure that the environments we have created at our universities to support research, arguably the best in the world, will not suffer from any proposed paradigm shifts for the teaching portion of our universities’ mission. Research and teaching are inextricably joined, each enriches the other.  This, in fact, defines the purpose of a university. A discussion of our nation’s universities and how they best can fulfill the totality of their unique mission is both timely and essential to their future, and to the future of our country.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.