WASHINGTON -- Noting that the United States created land-grant colleges in the middle of the Civil War, E. Gordon Gee told his fellow college presidents Sunday evening that the current economic crisis is no reason not to consider bold and far-reaching reforms of the institutions. "I am calling for intentional upheaval at our colleges and universities just when fiscal chaos already places us on the edge," Gee said here at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.
The choice for higher education, he said: "reinvention or extinction."
Gee didn't dispute the seriousness of the economic crisis facing colleges, calling it an "ever-worsening fiscal quagmire." But he said that higher education must resist the "first instinct" of such situations, "to hunker down, hide out, take refuge in the fox hole, and wait for the storm to pass." The situation is sufficiently dire, he said, that colleges need to "reconfigure ourselves," rather than simply trying to restore lost funds.
Specifically, Gee suggested that colleges abandon their traditional devotion to disciplines, rethink the way faculty members are hired, and embrace a more central role for community colleges in higher education.
On disciplines, he said that the idea was to "move from thinking vertically to thinking horizontally." Gee cited a retreat the university held with trustees, administrators and selected faculty members and students. "Any guesses who tossed out the notion of blowing up -- completely eradicating -- departments? A trustee? A student? No. The suggestion came from the chair of one of Ohio State's largest and strongest academic departments," he said.
Ohio State isn't about to eliminate all of its departments, Gee said. But the university is placing much more emphasis -- in hiring and supporting research -- on interdisciplinary clusters. In addition, he said that faculty members need to be rewarded for contributions broadly, not just those that advance their own fields.
On hiring generally, Gee said higher education must "look well past the traditional qualifications and expected career paths" that have been used over time. As an example, Gee cited Ohio State's recent hiring of Christine Poon  as dean of the business school. Poon has worked for 30 years in the health care industry, running up a long list of accomplishments in the business world. But she doesn't have traditional experience for a dean. "Has she taught a class? No. Does she have a doctorate? No," Gee said. He predicted that she would -- without those traditional requirements but with a wealth of experience -- "enliven an already strong college."
With regard to community colleges, Gee noted that despite his career leading research universities, many of the most important issues are based on the two-year sector. "Truly, the drivers of our future will be this nation's community colleges," he said. That means that research universities need to go beyond traditional ways of supporting community colleges -- such as articulation agreements -- and to think more ambitiously.
As an example, he cited a program Ohio State will be announcing today in conjunction with the College Board and Columbus State Community College in which selected students will be admitted to medical school or other health professions programs at Ohio State while still doing work at Columbus State. While a number of medical schools have programs in which students may be admitted to medical school as undergraduates, these programs generally involve elite undergraduate institutions, not community colleges. Students in the program will receive special academic guidance and a special curriculum to guide them from the two-year college through medical school.
While Gee said he was proud of the program, he said that it was but one effort, when many universities should have much more of a sense of true partnership with community colleges.
Gee was highly critical of higher education for being tradition-bound, but he also said repeatedly that he believes colleges are uniquely suited to help the United States rise out of the country's economic mess. "This will be the century of the American college and university, if we but have the courage to make it so," he said at the end of his speech, which received a standing ovation.