Monday, July 25, 2011

A public university’s mission has always been closely tied with the success and prosperity of its state’s citizens. The past few decades have presented a new challenge to education at all levels: the need for a state and its citizens to compete globally.

Public education remains a critical partner in fostering a globally prepared workforce, just as it remains a partner in fostering a culturally aware and knowledgeable citizenry. In fact, those go hand in hand. The basis for the degrees we offer at the University of Iowa, and at many institutions of higher education in our state, is a grounding in the liberal arts. We expose students to many different approaches to problems. We provide them opportunities to make connections that cross boundaries. And we ask them to develop depth in one field, but familiarity with several others. We help our students seek an understanding of the broader world, how and why cultures differ, and why those differences are important in finding solutions to important problems. These critical thinking skills are central to a world where the best-prepared graduates are globally aware, experienced in collaboration and teamwork, and adaptable to increasing unpredictability and independence.

U.S. higher education is the envy of the world. While we do face global leadership challenges from institutions abroad, U.S. schools overall remain the highest ranked, and students from all over the world come here to study and learn. One of the main reasons is the diversity of higher education opportunities in this country that has fueled this nation’s economic development and innovation. In the U.S., students can attend a community college, a technical college, a four-year public or private college or university, graduate school, professional school, continuing education programs, and much more. This diversity is unheard of in many parts of the world. We need all of these types of education and institutions, and we need to continue innovating new ones.

Just as we expect students to learn to adapt to change, so must our educational institutions, even as we have set the global pace for innovation. At Iowa, and at many other schools throughout the state, we are doing just that. We expect teamwork and collaboration of our students, and we are practicing that value as an institution in new and exciting ways. For example, just this month, I signed the twelfth agreement between the UI and one of our state’s community colleges—this time with Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon. In addition to making it easier for students to transfer from local community colleges to the University, these agreements are creating collaborative on-site and distance-learning degree and certificate programs that allow students to expand their opportunities for a college education right at home.

On campus, we are constantly implementing new methods and programs that reflect the educational needs of today’s students. Our new TILE classrooms—which stands for Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage—are redefining teaching and learning with collaborative, interactive setups and technology. Many of our new faculty hires and curricula are in cutting-edge interdisciplinary clusters that focus on crucial, even urgent issues of our time: water sustainability, the aging mind and brain, digital public humanities, obesity, and genetics. And we continue to expand our living-learning communities, which provide students with extended learning opportunities and networking within a community living setting. In fact, this past year, Craig Just from our College of Engineering received an $873,000 U.S. Department of Education grant to design, implement, evaluate, and disseminate a blueprint for dozens of sustainability living-learning communities, based on our model at Iowa, throughout the county.

We cannot—and should not—dictate specific fields of study to students. We need to let students’ own skills and passions determine what they will study, and ultimately what fields they will work in. But we do need to provide the programs, environments, and curricula that prepare them for the challenges of living in, working in, and contributing to a globalized world. I think we’re doing that at the UI, and I think we’re doing that across the state.

However, we must remain vigilant about remaining innovative. In the book Disrupting Class, authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson advocate “disruptive innovation” not only in the business world, but also in education. Disruptive innovation does not improve an existing product or service. Rather, it disrupts the trajectory of development by bringing something completely new into the market—such as when the personal computer entered the market and eventually overtook the mainframe and minicomputer. Rather than refining or advancing the status quo, successful disruptive innovation responds directly to the current and anticipated needs of people, which are always changing.

While we do—and should—hold onto what has worked well within our educational traditions, we in higher education must also be disruptive innovators, introducing new ideas that haven’t been thought of before but are responsive to needs and trends of the present and future. Those may be institutional partnership agreements, interdisciplinary clusters, TILE classrooms, and living-learning communities, for example. But most definitely they are also innovations that we have not even thought of yet. Our jobs as institutions of higher education are to lead with these innovations, not just for the short-term goals of a state or even a nation, but for the long-term development of our society in a globally competitive world.