On Saturday, January 19, 2013, I joined administrators, staff and members of the Penn State Board of Trustees for the Blue and White Vision Council Seminar at the Nittany Lion Inn. The goal of the seminar was to provide the Blue and White Vision Council a broad perspective to develop a strategic direction for teaching and technology at Penn State.
The seminar included two morning lectures, one by Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of Innosight Institute, the other by Clay Shirky, Partner for Technology and Product Strategy at the Accelerator Group. Horn highlighted a white paper on Disrupting College in which he established an analogy between the demise of the steel industry and the current crisis in Higher Education. Shirky, on the other hand, offered a different analogy, suggesting that MOOCs unbundle courses from curricula in the way Napster and iTunes unbundled songs from albums. The suggestion in both analogies was that Higher Education is an enterprise ripe for disruptive transformation that would likely lead to the demise of many universities unable to respond effectively to the revolution in technology we are experiencing.
The afternoon was focused more on the innovations we at Penn State have already undertaken with the growth and expansion of the World Campus and the integration of strategies of teaching with technology into our residence curriculum.
The day was full and I continue to reflect upon it, but I left with an unsettled feeling that the heart of Penn State was somehow missing from the discussion. That feeling was surely rooted in the absence of the voice of faculty in general, and our research faculty in particular. The seminar focused on teaching and technology, so it would have made sense for our faculty to have been more centrally included. They were, with a few exceptions, largely absent.
This absence signals something of deeper concern, for it suggests that there may be a failure to appreciate the deep connection between scholarly research and teaching.
As I have argued previously, the most effective way for Penn State to defend and strengthen its position in Higher Education is through the research mission that has long sustained and enriched the education we offer students. Only by infusing rigorous academic scholarship into all aspects of the educational endeavor–from general education at the undergraduate level, to our online offerings on the World Campus, to our professional and academic graduate programs–will we be able to offer a more compelling and transformative education than those who seek to deliver courses more efficiently and inexpensively.
To be sure, rigorous scholarship will mean different things in each of these contexts, but the education we deliver in the future will be neither competitive nor compelling unless we empower our research faculty to infuse rigorous scholarship into all levels of the curriculum and to inspire a new generation of students to take up and appreciate the research endeavor in which knowledge is not merely passed down, but discovered.
This is not, of course, to say that we ought not be innovative, or that we ought to reject opportunities to improve efficiencies and cut costs. Nor is it to deny the economic challenges facing our educational enterprise.
But our innovation must be fueled by rigorous academic research, our curriculum made relevant and compelling by engaged and engaging public scholarship, and our attempts to reach out beyond the physical campuses of the university ought to be animated by a vision of education rooted in a commitment to the transformative power of academic research.
If Saturday was designed in part to articulate for the Board a vision of the future of education at Penn State, I fear they may have left without a deep understanding of what ought to drive that future: excellent academic scholarship.