Universities are society’s oldest continuously operating institutions. They have enjoyed such persistence because they provide value – to their students and to society as a whole. Yet overall, they have been slow to change. Despite much talk about massively open online courses, distance learning, and other innovations, for the most part pedagogy at major universities has changed little over the decades. The most prominent innovation was the rise of the modern research university, where discoveries have spawned entire new eras and industries, and yet even this model is under threat. With the high cost of investment in research facilities, reimbursement rates from public and private research funders fall short of covering expenses. Notable scandals involving university administrators ignoring whistleblowers who complained of scientific misconduct leave the public with the impression that a faculty member’s ability to raise large amounts of research funding trumps integrity.
Higher education, including its research enterprise, needs to adapt to the changing nature of our 21st century society—and economy. Rather than passively adapt, or allow others to set the agenda, higher education needs to step up and lead. Leadership is what we so desperately need right now.
In order to meet the challenges of 2040, institutions of higher learning will need to reconsider what partnerships need to be renewed or to replace the university-industry-government partnerships that were launched with the Morrill Act of 1862, which created our land grant institutions. The economic, social, and cultural challenges we face are enormous and complex, and they demand sophisticated and cost-efficient responses by all of the partners. The challenges include:
- An economy in transition, where artificial intelligence can create new opportunities but also threaten millions of jobs.
- A planet threatened by anthropogenic climate change.
- Health care challenges for an aging, more obese, less active citizenry.
- National security concerns that threaten us at every turn – domestically in our buildings and recreational spaces, globally in many venues, and even within the digital world.
With these challenges in mind, there are at least three opportunities that universities should seize:
First, the nation’s economic and social advancement will depend on the extent to which higher education aligns its programs, curricula, labs, and other offerings with the needs of our 21st century workforce. Our universities need to educate 124 the workforce with the knowledge, skills, and creative problem-solving capabilities they need to meet the global demands of business and industry in the fields of technology, medicine, finance, sustainability, and public service—and do so in a way that meets the needs of workers and learners throughout their careers. An important part of this is updating the concept of higher education such that it focuses on lifelong learning rather than only a degree-driven set of experiences that occur in stages largely under the age of thirty. Today, higher education must provide learning experiences for workers and citizens of any age and any profession; it also must include a central role in contributing to economic and cultural development, job creation, and social stability in local communities, across nations, and indeed across the globe.
Second, while there is a benefit to all ethical, high quality research, I would argue that basic and applied research that addresses our world’s most pressing problems—income inequality, climate change, disease, sustainable resources, and the need for more abundant and efficient energy sources, to name a few—must be a high priority of universities and colleges. We must be intentional in advocating for more deliberate investments in higher education research and we must encourage faculty to pursue problem-solving research. Federal or state governments should consider new models for financing fundamental and applied research that address the world’s most urgent global challenges so that we can expand the research enterprise, encourage risk-taking and new ideas, and still be efficient with taxpayer dollars.
Third, universities need to enhance the kind of collaborative partnerships with business and industry that have been responsible for the creation of hundreds of millions of jobs and many product and service innovations over the last century. Such partnerships can support new curricula, labs, internships, and apprenticeships in ways that more effectively prepare graduates for work and life.
Finally, universities need to contribute to the public discourse and our public policy debates in a constructive way in communities. Universities can use their power, influence, and resources to educate students and all citizens, and conduct research and service, in ways that can help unite us, not divide us. We know about the economic disparities that seem to be widening in the U.S. and worldwide (even while overall wealth increases), and we are increasingly seeing the negative cultural consequences of class divisions across the globe—to say nothing of divisions by race, gender, and religion. I would argue that universities need to use the power of their classrooms, laboratories, public service offerings, and community networks to reduce those divisions. Higher education institutions should be more purposeful in tying their education and research programs to the needs of citizens and workers who struggle to navigate the complex paths toward productive careers, engaged citizenship, and connectedness with their fellow human beings. This is an area where universities, which themselves and on their own campus grounds can be bastions of diversity, tolerance, justice, and equity, need to play a more active role in their local, national, and global communities. Universities cannot afford to become insular at a time when we need them to engage and connect with the citizens and organizations around them. Public universities, I believe, have an especially important obligation to serve the people around them, and not just the students who work and live on their campuses.
Although I may not live to see 2040, one of my granddaughters should be receiving her college degree in that year. I hope that the universities of 2040 will serve her as well as the institutions of the 1970s served me.
Marcia McNutt (B.A. in physics, Colorado College; Ph.D. in Earth sciences, Scripps Institution of Oceanography) is a geophysicist and the 22nd president of the National Academy of Sciences. From 2013 to 2016, she was editor-in-chief of Science journals. McNutt was director of the U.S. Geological Survey from 2009 to 2013, during which time USGS responded to a number of major disasters, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. For her work to help contain that spill, McNutt was awarded the U.S. Coast Guard’s Meritorious Service Medal. She is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Association of Geodesy. McNutt is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, UK, and the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1998, McNutt was awarded the AGU’s Macelwane Medal for research accomplishments by a young scientist, and she received the Maurice Ewing Medal in 2007 for her contributions to deep-sea exploration.