Monday, November 29, 2010

What Makes a University Great?

For some earlier thoughts on the matter please see:

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and is president of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology

What Makes a University Great? 

Land-grant institutions, contrary to some popular beliefs, are not merely about agricultural development, but rather, about changing the world in a positive, meaningful, and enduring way. Land-grant institutions perhaps best represent the very core of what greatness means in American society -- namely, equal opportunity for all and, through it, the chance to make our society and the world a better place in which to live.

Whereas the most selective institutions in the country are highly focused on entry value -- seeking students with the highest grades, test scores, and high-school records of "extracurricular activities" -- land-grant institutions typically are particularly focused on "value added" -- producing the future leaders who make the world a better place. A necessary qualification, of course, is that the students admitted are able to do the work, either upon admission or with remediation and enrichment. Land-grant institutions generally have honors programs, but often the focus is not just on how academically smart you are, but on how much of your smartness you can give back to the world. What is important in a land-grant institution is developing future ethical leaders who will enrich their communities and their societies, in whatever way.

Ratings such as those of U.S. News & World Report reward institutions that reject lots of applicants but thereby are not fully consistent with the land-grant mission. The game becomes somewhat perverse: get lots of applicants so you can reject them to prove how exclusive you are as an institution. In land-grant institutions, providing access is especially important for students from low-opportunity households whose only chance to go to college may be at the land-grant university.

In admissions, the most selective institutions tend to be organized around a relatively fixed notion of human abilities and skills. Requiring sky-high SATs and ACTs make sense as important (although not exclusive) bases of admission only if one believes that they measure relatively fixed traits that project the future potential of the applicant.  From the point of view of the land-grant mission, access provides a way for students to achieve the equal opportunity our society promises. Abilities are indeed modifiable so the institution can help each student reach the outer level of those abilities--to translate abilities into competencies and competencies into expertise.
Land-grant institutions tend to have a broad sense of what abilities are -- these institutions are about admitting people who will make the difference to the state and the society that was embodied by the principles of the Morrill Act.

Land-grant institutions typically require standardized test scores, but not at the levels required by elite colleges. can end up with particular leaders who were educated at elite institutions -- who are very smart in an SAT sense -- and then sometimes prove unable to connect with the rest of the population and who create financial and ethical messes because their analytical skills were never adequately complemented by the creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills they need truly to succeed as leaders.

 In a land-grant institution, traditional scholarly quality still matters, but work that gives back to society receives especial plaudits. It thus becomes easier for state legislatures and the people of a state to see why research is important to them, not merely to the advancement of individual researchers’ scholarly careers.

Service and outreach have a have a particular meaning in a land-grant institution.  In a land-grant institution, service is more integrated into the fabric of teaching and research. Service is the reason for being of the land-grant institution, so service learning, research with potential applications, and outreach are intrinsic to its mission.

In the land-grant institution, the emphasis on give-back leads to the centrality of ethical leadership and wisdom as the core values of the learning experience. “Smartness” is valued, but as a means of giving back. Wisdom is the use of one’s smartness and knowledge for a common good through the infusion of positive ethical values, and because the land-grant institution must give back to the state and the country in order to fulfil its mission, its graduates cannot be viewed as truly successful according to the mission of the college or university unless they embody this ideal.

Whereas some of us may think of land-grant institutions as needing to emulate the most elite institutions, perhaps these elite institutions would benefit as much or more from adopting some of the land-grant values. Land-grant institutions in many ways reflect the ideals of the American dream. They have a unique role in helping to achieve that dream that is not being captured by magazine ratings based on narrow criteria that have led our society to a precipice.

 What is above is only a selection.  Please see the original for a longer version. 


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