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If universities are to flourish during the next century, they need to do a better job publicizing their role as drivers of economic growth, civic discussion and the production of new knowledge.

That’s the opinion of three distinguished leaders who took to the stage on September 30th as part of the University of Minnesota’s Great Conversations lecture series in Minneapolis.

America’s best universities “have become the engines of innovation and discovery,” according to Jonathan R. Cole, the John Mitchell Mason professor at Columbia University and the author of The Great American University: Its Rise To Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected.

“Universities don’t do a terribly good job of tooting their own horns about the things they do well,” Cole said. “If we disinvest in them as we have begun to do, then I think the nation’s welfare is literally under threat. They will not spin off new companies, new industries.”

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks, who hosted the discussion, concurred. “I occasionally get paid to lobby for the university,” he joked, “and it’s not a hard job because I can’t imagine what Minnesota would do without this engine for its economy.”

Bruininks reeled off the names of numerous medical-device manufacturers and biotech concerns that call Minnesota home, explaining that their executives have often said they would not be here if it weren’t for the university’s ability to supply a skilled workforce.

And the return-on-investment for those who attend college is clear. A recent report by the College Board, “Education Pays 2010,” found that “the median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients working full-time year-round in 2008 were $55,700, $21,900 more than the median earnings of high school graduates.” The report also noted that the unemployment rate of college graduates is about half that of high school graduates.

“Getting the public’s attention on the consequences of disinvestment is very important,” Bruininks added. “Our state and our nation need to rethink our human capital perspective.”

Traditional four-year universities are under scrutiny like never before, in part because the recession has forced schools to cut their budgets and it has raised concerns about the high cost of tuition. Increases in tuition almost always outpace inflation, but in a weak economy more people are asking why this must be so. At the same time, interest in non-traditional models of higher education is growing. A number of politicians and business leaders, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, have suggested the U.S. must radically rethink its system of higher education.

Especially at a time when other countries are scrutinizing the American university system in an effort to compete for preeminence, the speakers said.

Today, 700,000 international students are enrolled in U.S. universities, said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities and a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Ten years ago, China had no international students. Now, it’s host to 250,000.

“It’s going to be a much more global marketplace than it has been in the past,” Berdahl said.

Even so, systems of higher education in other countries still lack one of the core values that make U.S. universities such vital places, Cole explained: The idea of academic freedom.

When he speaks about the concept to university leaders overseas, he rarely generates much interest. “They think it’s something professors hide behind when they are under attack,” Cole said. “But it’s vital to the production of new ideas.”

By way of example, he cited the University of California’s role in the discovery of prions, naturally occurring proteins that can go off-course and cause disease. For 100 years, it was assumed that only viruses and bacteria caused disease. The idea that proteins could cause disease, too, was initially seen as wildly unorthodox.

Berdahl concurred: “It’s an act of faith to say we will tolerate the exchange of ideas we find loathsome because we have faith that the truth will win out. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much.”

It’s easy to assume that all of this innovation is coming from science and technology programs, the speakers cautioned. Consequently, as state and federal funding has plummeted, the humanities have taken a disproportionate share of the hits.

Research at American universities increasingly crosses disciplines, however. “As nanotechnologies develop, there are going to be ethical quandaries that emerge,” Cole said. “In great universities, there is a certain seamlessness to these disciplines.”

University leaders also need to do a better job communicating the importance of the relationship between research and undergraduate teaching. Student evaluations of faculty always hinge on a faculty member’s research accomplishments, the speakers noted. And the most talented educators are not likely to take jobs at universities that don’t value undergraduate education.

Other countries’ efforts to create great university systems are hampered by separating the research mission from the teaching mission, Cole added.

On the whole, however, the speakers agreed that the rise of dynamic universities in other parts of the world can only benefit higher education here. Competition is one reason U.S. institutions are so strong.

“Competition has driven this greatness,” said Cole. In the next century, “we may have fewer of the top 20 universities in the world, but there will be more great universities and we will all benefit from that.”

Justin Snider contributed to this article. A version of it appeared on the MinnPost’s Learning Curve blog. The Great Conversations series, of which MinnPost is a media sponsor, is produced by the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education.

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