UO Investiture Symposium | 2016

Investiture talk explores challenges facing public universities

While research universities in the United States are the envy of the world, schools need to evolve in access, communication and mission in the decades to come in order to maintain global preeminence, said Jonathan Cole during a investiture-related talk Wednesday.

Cole, the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia and author of "Toward a More Perfect University,” was the keynote speaker during “The Modern Public Research University: Challenges and Opportunities” talk and panel discussion. The event was the kickoff to activities related to the Investiture of Michael H. Schill as president of the University of Oregon.

“American research universities are the greatest in the world. There is no question about it. We are the kings and queens of the mountain,” Cole said. “But there is a real threat to these universities and the research they do. We have the capacity to destroy our own universities.”

From the admission process to academic freedom to decreased state funding, Cole outlined the challenges of public research universities. One issue he pointed to was the dependence on test scores, such as SAT or MCAT, to drive admissions.

“There is a perception by the American public that intelligence is measured by test scores. But tests don’t recognize the creativity of all the people who lack high SAT scores,” he said, pointing out that universities can benefit from well-rounded students with potential to be extraordinary.  

“We’ve taken the quirkiness out of our classes. Ivy league has become boring. Kids have a straight path and they don’t deviate from this path,” said Cole. “We take pride in sending rejection letters to 95 percent of our applicants, who are already self-selected. Everybody tends to look the same. That should not be the objective of higher education.”

After his remarks, Cole joined a panel discussion about the challenges for maintaining access for students while growing excellence at public research universities. Other panelists were Jamienne Studley, former president of Skidmore College and former deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education, and Charles R. Martinez Jr., UO professor and department head in educational methodology, policy and leadership. Lisa Heyamoto, UO journalism instructor, moderated the panel.

Much of that conversation centered on work within universities to find their shared mission and communication externally to show that universities add value locally, nationally and globally.

“When I first started at the UO, I went around asking, ‘Who does the university serve?’ There was shocking variance of answers,” Martinez said. “Faculty would say to serve creation of knowledge. Students would say, ‘The university is here to serve us.’ Dave Frohnmayer, then president of the UO, thought for quite a while and then said, ‘The university is here to serve the future.’”

“We’ve done a poor job of telling people what we do,” Studley said. “We need to get away from people thinking that we are a distant ivory tower to a working community partner.”

“We have failed to create in our own institutional minds — some agreement within our own institutions — what we are trying to get out of our students,” Cole said. “College is supposed to be unsettling. It’s not supposed to be intellectually safe. Students believe they are not there to be challenged. This is an unfortunate aspect of college life today.”

By Heidi Hiaasen, University Communications