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A University of Texas colleague, Rick Cherwitz, recently sent around his thoughts on how to respond to critics who think that our university should run more like a business. Rick is the director of the university’s program on intellectual entrepreneurship.

To quote Rick, he argues that,

for over a decade IE, operating within the most noble humanistic traditions, makes the metaphor and model of higher education one of "discovery, ownership, and accountability" (not one of "apprenticeship, certification, and entitlement") -- a view that certainly resonates and is consistent with successful business practices, as well as reasonable public expectations about the potential value of higher education. IE accomplishes this by taking advantage of, not replacing or diluting, what public research universities do best, viz., research and scholarship; and it does so without turning universities into vocational institutions where the order of the day is serving customers (students, parents, etc.) and where assessment is based on naive metrics that have little to do with the quality of education.

My response to Rick’s statement was that I believe universities exist to take on risk and provide the kind of research and innovation that the private sector can't afford to do. Even in a field like political science, which was recently cut out of National Science Foundation funding, innovative studies in voting behavior and the media have helped politicians hone their messages and use social media in productive ways. Students are able to pursue projects that challenge them intellectually with guidance from faculty. However, I do think we need to do more in the liberal arts and social sciences to truly challenge students and the way they think about issues that go beyond disciplinary boundaries.

Unfortunately, faculty are often discouraged from making interdisciplinary connections, which leads to narrower approaches that may please the gatekeepers within a discipline, rather than marshaling the resources of the university to approach critical issues (like my own research area of immigration) in a comprehensive way.  I’m particularly concerned that interdisciplinary work is being negatively impacted by budget cuts as I see that colleagues whose work crosses disciplines are less likely to receive tenure. This is a trend that will need to be reversed if universities are going to meet the challenges of the new paradigm that is developing for academe.

The political battle of wills which has engulfed the University of Texas may seem unique, but I believe it is only the beginning of what has been and will continue to be an effort to redefine the role of the university. The role of MOOCs has come up again as philosophy faculty at San Jose State University are rejecting the use of a MOOC from edX, quality of the typical lecture version of these courses is suspect and college and university presidents are skeptical of MOOCs as shown in a recent Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey.

Faculty need to pay attention to these issues, as they will have a direct impact on our roles as teachers and researchers, and my concern is that faculty are not paying enough attention to issues that will very soon have an impact on our careers.

What is interesting to me is that the whole example of MOOCs is one that shows the willingness of universities to take on risk. Revenue models for these courses are still being worked out and it’s not yet clear how they will work within traditional academic settings. However many universities, including my own, have jumped into this arena with both feet. Our president, Bill Powers, recently announced "the remarkable success of our new free online course offerings. Nearly 39,000 people around the world have signed up to take one of UT’s nine MOOCs (massively open online courses) in the coming academic year," while acknowledging there is much to be learned in our first year of offering these courses. How many large corporations, the equivalent of one of the largest public universities in the country, could or would take on this type of project? It’s more like something that an entrepreneur, possibly with venture capital funding, would do.

The reality is that universities offer students many opportunities to be entrepreneurial, to test out new ideas and approaches to learning, e.g., study abroad, capstone projects, honor’s theses, service learning, and UT’s own intellectual entrepreneurship program. I know many faculty who are using new technologies to add substantive dimension to their courses, including using social media, writing blogs, creating games, experiments and other ways of challenging students to think outside of the box. There is so much that we do that we are proud of, and should do more to promote. IE encourages this approach: "In fact, we [IE] implore our students, Never apologize for being a scholar. The challenge facing both graduate students and faculty is discovering the value of their scholarly expertise and documenting it for others."

My main conclusion from all of this is that faculty, and academe in general, are doing a very poor job of selling ourselves and explaining our added value.  I have seen our university president send out long missives about all that the university is doing, and write editorials that explain how we are an engine of economic growth in the state of Texas. However, it will take more than this to explain to the average Texan the value of our university, particularly when our athletic teams aren’t winning national championships. To quote my colleague Rick Cherwitz again, “addressing the challenges of creating engaged universities must not be a platform for disgruntled faculty or external groups motivated by a political agenda. On the academic side, this cause requires prominent scholars to join the conversation.”

We all need to get involved in this discussion and encourage our administrators to engage the relevant players in this ongoing conversation in which we all have a major stake.

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