Higher Education in the Information Age

President's Panel: Agenda for Action and Experimentation

Judith Rodin


Judith Rodin: I'm not going to repeat what my eloquent colleagues have said. I'll try to sum up a bit of their comments and just add a few additional thoughts and then open this for discussion. I would like first, I'm sure on behalf of all of you, to thank Greg Farrington for an extraordinary job-a wonderful set of days and meetings. Mike Eleey, too. Just really terrific, and we are all very grateful. So thank you.

When the COFHE presidents first talked about having this conference and really what we could learn from one another and how we could assist one another, Greg's last point was the most pertinent. I think we all have the experience of collaboration among our libraries and have learned in that venue in particular the benefit using these new technologies of extraordinary kinds of collaborative efforts. What we haven't learned as well as administrators is learning from one another's mistakes and not replicating those mistakes over and over again. And so while I think that we have accomplished many things, if we have only accomplished a mechanism for reaching out to one another and a way to continue this conversation to tell one another our good ideas and keep one another from replicating the bad ideas, I think that it will have been very successful.

I have I guess a somewhat different perspective than Harry's. I think that the technology is upon us with a vengeance, and that it is fun and it's creative and it's exciting, and it is empowering our students more perhaps than it is empowering our faculties. And so when we deal with what the internal sets of issues are, what I find most challenging is really creating the kinds of mechanisms that allow our faculty to understand, appreciate, deal with, or move away from in appropriate instances what feels like the inexorable drive of these new technologies.

Our students began a set of boards, undergraduate advisory boards, to each of the major arts and sciences departments. The first one developed by our own Al Filreis in English, and last year the English undergraduate advisory board held a seminar for their faculty called "The 24 Hour Classroom", trying to persuade the faculty of the elegance of the computer revolution for really extending the learning venue to a full 24 hours, because indeed these kids were interacting with one another and Al, god bless him, day and night, 24 hours a day, as a result of the new technologies. Well, there's a number of our faculty that find that notion awful and terrifying, and we really do need to think about how we make it available, in what ways, and for whom.

Our veterinary school faculty is now teaching the initial surgery course as a virtual anatomy course. It has done a world of good in terms of our animal rights activists and has really done some interesting things in terms of how students feel about their learning in the surgical arena. So there are many ways that the use of these technologies has softened for many of our faculty issues that were of great concern, but it has also raised some.

Let me address two issues, one of which has been talked about and the other not. The issue not so much of what we do internally, but of who our outside competitors are, if we use that word. And I don't mean that in terms of the sort of pejorative market forces, but as, in some ways, we all compete with one another, and so who will this new group be? When we talked about having Mike Leavitt here or someone who represented the Western Governors initiative, it really was in part because we felt that we should all recognize that whether we like it or not, there is going to be an onslaught of initiatives that will sometimes emerge outside of the universities but impact on the university, either by trying to get members of our faculty to participate in initiatives for which we don't pay them and others will pay them more handsomely or those who will create by creating new sets of faculties different from the faculties that we put through peer review processes and the like. Whether we like it or not, this is happening and it will happen, and the question is really how the kinds of institutions that we represent choose to participate in, compete with, address, or marginalize, or maybe all of the above those related set of activities if in fact that is appropriate. It's not just about distance learning. It's about all of the outside-of-the-traditional- university-walls ways that students of all kinds will have access to information, instruction, and I think increasingly education, not just information, in the future.

Steve, I agree with you, although Mike Leavitt pushed the argument aside: I think if we have a crystal ball and this does move forward in the way that it seems to that we will have fewer colleges and universities, that the elites will be likely to survive, as we have survived even with high charges and the like because we are able to offer something that is differentiating, but that there are many institutions out there that don't have something that in a very tangible and palpable way differentiates them. And I think that they will change, and I think we will see many, many fewer universities and colleges. We have to ask ourselves whether that's a good or bad thing. You asked whether we would have fewer faculty. I think we will have fewer faculty, and I think we have to ask ourselves whether that's a good or bad thing. Again, these are realities that are approaching, and I can't imagine even what 25 years will be like, but I agree with my colleagues that being planful now and being nimble and being flexible is something that is probably more demanded of us at this moment than ever before.

Finally a word about leadership. Greg ended this panel with the three of us not because after spending a day and a half doing good things you needed to hear from three university and college presidents, but because Greg really feels, and I agree strongly, that the day is now past when the presidents can turn over the issue of technology to the chief technology officer and say, "Now you go away and wire this or figure this out, and I'm out of this." I think this is a moment when universities and colleges will fundamentally transform themselves, and presidents have got to be deeply and intimately and planfully involved, and if not leading, at least actively participating in what is going on and hopefully playing an important and dynamic collaborative and leadership role in those activities. That certainly is my goal here, and I think it is critical for the future of our institutions that presidents take on that mantle. Those of you who are not presidents or chancellors and chief academic officers, please go back and tell your presidents that this is the moment. Thank you.

Farrington: Well, I think we're ending. Ending and beginning I hope. The new technologies I think give us lots of wonderful new opportunities, but if we lose sight of our values we won't be able to celebrate them and use them. One of the mistakes people make about technology all the time is believing that it changes people. It doesn't, really, I don't think. It just gives them new ways of acting out who they are. You and I, I'm sure, have plenty of opportunities-I know I do-to speak with alumni. The older the alumnus, the more likely he or she is to ask me not about laboratories or libraries or fraternities or dormitories, but about people. They ask about Old So and So. Sometimes Old So and So isn't that old, they just seem that old at the time. "Is Old So and So still around?" That is: people who've gone through colleges and universities and been students remember people, people who took time to touch their lives, people who interacted with each other. Faculty are changed by the process and so are students.

The challenge of the new technologies isn't to use them to put distance between us, but to make the connections closer. The magic that began this morning with Pinchas Zukerman was having him in the room while he was in Tel Aviv and having him touch the life of Elizabeth who was doing her best on the violin, a lot better than I could ever dream of doing, even though he was seven time zones away. It was the personal connection that was the magic, not the technology.

Regardless, change is happening. We are not setting the rules. Change will happen. The market is strong. The question is, we have choices, we have people-how do we create institutions that are as lively and innovative in teaching as they are in research? We all know that there's not a researcher in this institution who doesn't know everything going on with his or her colleagues around the world, as I said a moment ago, but they may not know how physics is taught down the road at Swarthmore College, even if it's taught a lot better at Swarthmore College. So we have to bring some of our creative energy that's so good at superconductivity to super teaching, and I think that requires us knowing a little bit more about what we do in our institutions at the teaching level as well as at the research level.

We are marvelously, marvelously creative institutions at the research level and sometimes not so marvelously creatively at our core business that accounts to 60, 70 to 80 percent of our income. Now isn't that interesting? Does that sound a bit like large, multi-national corporations that went through such change in the eighties? Well, just a little bit too much for comfort. So if I could challenge you all, it's for goodness sakes to go back and communicate the message: technology is not the side show. It's not what goes on over here. It's not what's done by somebody who reports to you. It's utterly central to the future of the institution, and those that thrive are going to be those that not only create and those that exploit its new powers and opportunities and not only those that survive economically in the process, but also those who remember that ultimately it's people who touch people's lives, and that's what the business is all about, whether learning, training, or education.

Thank you for coming to Penn. Thank you for coming to Philadelphia. Have safe trips home, and we hope that you will return either really-preferably-or virtually.



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Last modified: 21 January 1998