The world is changing. Higher education must also change. Such words are now said so often they hardly seem provocative. And, a quick read of the news quickly illustrates the necessity of change (or at least the implications for not doing so). An increasing number of colleges and universities are reorganizing, merging, or closing.
We are, without question, operating in one of the most challenging, rapidly changing, and also hopeful times for US higher education. Such a bold statement demands, and deserves, some explanation. The challenges facing US higher education writ large, and public higher education in particular, are well known. We have watched as both costs and expectations have risen while public support has declined. We have seen the popularity of traditional academic majors ebb and flow, while new fields of study and entirely new disciplines have evolved, demanding new resources and new expertise.
In my writing and speaking about US higher education, I frequently highlight the three pillars of our mission at University of Vermont (UVM) as a land-grant university: teaching, research and scholarship, and service. This includes our pedagogical innovations and commitment to excellence in teaching; our research activity; our investments in support of faculty research and scholarship; the success of our faculty in securing extramural support for their research and scholarship; and the impact of our research, innovation, and discovery.
I have always regarded America’s top universities as agents of change. Social movements are started on our campuses, come of age on our campuses, and move out into our communities. Political and economic theories emerge from our lecture halls and scientific revolutions are born in our laboratories. Our college and university campuses are places where ideas are hatched, theories are examined, practices are studied, and philosophies are debated.
Increasingly, as universities face fiscal challenges and concerns over long-term financial sustainability, they are looking at their budget models to incent behaviors or capture previously unrealized opportunities and revenue. These models also are being pointed to by critics as mechanisms being used by nefarious senior administrators and boards to dismantle academic programs, disrupt longstanding academic culture, and surreptitiously shift institutional priorities.
I feel as though I have “come of age” as an academic leader in this time of growing tension between STEM and the liberal arts. While it has been important to pay attention to and take time to fully understand the genesis of these tensions and the reasons they have increased and caused communities on our campuses to entrench, put up defenses, and even do battle, it is perhaps more important to continue to seek to remove barriers, engage productively, and create deeper and more purposeful partnerships.
Two of my favorite events in the university’s academic calendar are Convocation and Commencement. As provost, I played a role in both ceremonies and always looked forward to the festivities surrounding these milestone markers in our students’ academic journeys with us. But when asked about my favorite time of year at the university, I always say it is the week immediately following Commencement.