• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


What Does Feeney Graduate School Mean For Higher Education?

Okay, it is not really the Feeney Graduate School, although, with his permission, Mr. Feeney should allow Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to honor him in that way. 

December 24, 2011

Okay, it is not really the Feeney Graduate School, although, with his permission, Mr. Feeney should allow Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to honor him in that way.  

What does it mean for these two institutions? All the obvious advantages come to mind: since both are at a remove from major metropolitan areas, including powerful financial centers, critical masses of people, competition and achievement in business, culture and the arts, a physical presence in a major city reminds us that not all innovation happens in cyberspace. That Mayor Bloomberg appreciates New York City's need to combine those attributes with a connection to the highest quality research and teaching in technology demonstrates his acute political and business acumen once again.     

But what will this school mean for higher education? More than any other development since information technology sought to "transform" higher education, this one means that the game has officially changed. But not in the way that many of us thought it would go ... The assumption was that technology would lift education as it was at its height in the American Century -- the Ivy Tower motif -- high and higher. This transformation breaks that assumption open in order to create a new concept formed out of an eminently practical relationship with the rest of the world.  

Did technology accomplish this feat on it own? Certainly not. This trend has been aching through our bones as well. Citizens of the world as well as academics, we might have experienced an unresolved tug between the two worlds (I confess to that one); Or watched as faculty and mostly administrators attempted to layer the external world on us (do you hear the mantra "higher education has to operate like a business" or have you watched hundreds of thousands of dollars pour into administrative systems orthogonally designed to suit our actual information needs?); Or recoiled at the sight of ostrich after ostrich academician -- in faculty as well as administration -- bury their heads in the sands of denial about change in the world around us?

Higher education as an ideal must balance being in and of the world. In all major civilizations it emerges out of cultural trends that seek psychic distance from the grinding mechanisms of the political economies from which it derives. Look at the monastic traditions of western civilization or confucian foundations of Chinese civil service. That distance provides scholars the autonomy to serve education's unique mission. But higher education in the U.S. may have gotten too far off the beaten path of life. The slings and arrows it has suffered at the hands of politician's criticism, public opinion's disappointment with price as well as outcomes, and disillusionment from within all suggest that we are at a crossroads of a new identity befitting this new century, one that is distinctly not "America's." In the undergraduate experience especially, too much emphasis on the German university disciplinary model at the expense of teaching and learning that maps the real needs and experiences of people and the world outside of higher education gets my vote for the foremost challenge that we face going forward.  We cannot blame that outmoded paradigm on anyone but ourselves, and we are responsible for changing it if we want to preserve the deeper significance that colleges and universities have in our society.  

To voice this concern, even if directed largely at undergraduate education, is not unrelated to a prognostication about the meaning of this new graduate program. Both emphasize engagement with the world.  What I am going to take liberties and call the Feeney Graduate School resets that balance between higher education and the world, and this time the use of the word "world" is not synonymous with just places and experiences outside of our hallowed walls but an extension of all of that globally. I have never been so proud to be a Cornellian as now. My hope is that all of us, those back at the proverbial ranch in Ithaca as well as colleges and universities everywhere, not see this program simply as the product of a competition among institutions but a model of qualities to which we should all aspire. 


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