“The work of great research universities … has never been more urgently needed,” says UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman. “Our responsibility now is to figure out how to sustain this vital work in the face of unmanageable cost increases and dramatic declines in state support for public universities and federal support for research.”

The future of higher education

UCI leaders share insights in advance of Feb. 26 symposium

In 1965, the campus of the future rose from a muddy cattle ranch south of Los Angeles. The University of California, Irvine – one of three authorized by state regents to educate a burgeoning population of bright young people – was funded with tax dollars spent to hire the finest faculty and build state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories designed by the nation’s leading urban planners. Tuition for students from the Golden State? Zero.

Fast-forward half a century. UCI has gone on to win three Nobel Prizes and rank No. 1 among young U.S. universities. The campus has pioneered online degrees, national advancement programs for women in science and other firsts.

But the headlines today tell a different story about higher education overall, both in California and across the nation. Faced with sharp cuts in state funding, many campuses are fighting to survive or expand. Less than a third of college professors are tenured, and the average student owes tens of thousands of dollars upon graduation.

So what is the future of higher education? On Feb. 26, at the signature event of UCI’s 50th Anniversary Academic Symposia, Chancellor Howard Gillman and fellow academic leaders will hold a thought-provoking conversation about the path forward for American campuses.

Moderated by Michael Riley, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the panel also includes Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former UCI chancellor; James E.K. Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College; and Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. UCI faculty and trustees specializing in higher education will be on hand too.

“The work of great research universities – exploring the frontiers of knowledge, solving the most intractable global challenges, educating our most promising students – has never been more urgently needed,” Gillman says. “Our responsibility now is to figure out how to sustain this vital work in the face of unmanageable cost increases and dramatic declines in state support for public universities and federal support for research.”

Among the topics on the table are tuition, diversity, tenure, academic freedom, student protests, technology in teaching and other critical issues for campuses of the 21st century. Perhaps most pressing is the question of covering costs.

Given the continued loss of legislative funds in California, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, colleges may be offering too many courses and wasting precious dollars, according to Andrew Policano, Dean’s Leadership Circle Professor of economics/public policy at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business. The co-author of two books on changes needed at public universities, he believes that setting priorities and implementing economic efficiencies are imperative.

“Universities have been forced into a totally different world. What happened for a long time was that campuses were able to take this money that was thrown over the wall and do whatever they liked with it. So if you walk onto any University of California campus as a freshman, you have at least 100 choices of what to major in – sometimes 150 choices,” Policano says. “The question today is: How are you going to afford all of that scope, and who is going to pay for it?”

He opposes eliminating liberal arts or other disciplines not perceived as career-track options – noting that his college philosophy courses gave him lifelong critical thinking skills – but says university systems could, for example, avoid duplication of majors and courses on sister campuses. Persuading faculty to accept such changes is a huge challenge, he argues.

UCI trustee and retired Republican legislator Richard Ackerman says it’s important to recognize that not everyone needs a university degree, that vocational training is also valuable. But restoring higher levels of state funding to strapped campuses is critical, he says. He and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Levine have formed a unique bipartisan coalition that lobbies state officials to do just that. “Most people don’t realize that the legislature used to fund 100 percent of the UC budget, and now it funds about 10 percent,” Ackerman says. “That’s just not enough.”

For UCI Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow Constance Iloh, what’s important is recognizing and serving the “post-traditional” older adult and working students of the 21st century, as well as nonwhites at both liberal arts and for-profit colleges and children of immigrants who are the first in their families to attend college.

“A lot of the students that we tend to consider underrepresented and marginalized in higher education I see more as the students of the future,” says Iloh, who recently made Forbes’ 2016 list of “30 Under 30” in education. “These are definitely the students we need to pay more attention to in terms of their needs and goals.”

UCI already has achieved a unique distinction when it comes to so-called “first-generation” students and research universities, says Anita Casavantes Bradford, associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies. More than 60 percent of its undergraduates have parents who didn’t earn a college degree. UCI is also the youngest member of the prestigious American Association of Universities and has been ranked the top U.S. university under 50 years old for the past four years.

“It shows you can be both,” Casavantes Bradford says. “UCI is a first-generation campus and a top research university. It’s not either/or – and that’s something we should celebrate.”

The daughter of a single mother, she was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and college degrees. She remembers the exhaustion she felt while working to put herself through college, her initial sense of isolation on campus and other challenges. Research by Casavantes Bradford and others has shown that talented first-generation students can see their grades dip their first semester because they are unaccustomed to seeking help from professors, for instance, or feel lost in a new environment.

Sixty UCI faculty are now specially trained mentors for such students, and Casavantes Bradford and current undergraduates are creating a first-quarter peer-to-peer mentoring program to ease what can be a tough transition.

Gillman, the son of working-class San Fernando Valley parents who was also the first in his family to earn degrees, says that access is a key part of what makes UCI great and must be maintained for future generations.

“America’s best colleges and universities should be its greatest gateway to social mobility, and that means ensuring that elite education is not just there for the elite but serves the people as a whole,” he says. “It’s one of the things UCI has figured out that few others have: We provide an Ivy League education to talented young people regardless of background or the wealth of their families. And that has to continue.”

*Livestream at http://bit.ly/UCIFutureOfHigherEdLive16 

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