February 22, 2002

NU president talks education

Several months ago, I wrote a variety of leaders in the field of higher education to see if they might contribute an original piece to an ongoing discussion about the future of higher education in the United States. The response was excellent, and this will hopefully be the first of several offerings on this pressing subject.

Not surprisingly, the first piece I received was from someone who spent a considerable time on our main quadrangle: President Henry Bienen of Northwestern University, who received both his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Bienen has written numerous books and articles on political and economic development, and has continued to engage in scholarly activity during his tenure at Northwestern, a feat that at times is Herculean, especially considering the demands made on a university president. Bienen's remarks are timely, particularly for their consideration of the escalating competition for research grants throughout the academic landscape and also for recognizing the importance of maintaining a balance of different lines of inquiry within the university setting.

In closing, if any readers would like to contribute to this ongoing forum about higher education, please contact me at kmgrinne@ uchicago.edu.

Bienen on Higher Education

Higher education is one of the United States' great strengths. The variety of institutions— community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research and teaching institutions, public and private, of various sizes— all provide an immense range of types of learning institutions.

They have helped maintain in the United States a relatively open social structure. They have generated and disseminated new knowledge. And they have provided engines of growth for local communities, states, and for the nation.

I think the future for higher education is bright because the demands for our institutions' products are greater than ever. However, the pressures on these institutions are also increasing.

For the research institutions, both public and private, costs of facilities, matching funds for federal research grants, and government regulations work to raise the ante for being in the research game. It is not self-evident that all the university players will be able to stay in this game.

Higher education has, as I noted, provided social and economic opportunities, including opportunities for underrepresented minorities and for people from relatively poor communities and families. However, current attacks on affirmative action may well lead to outcomes which will cut some people off from flagship state institutions.

For those from relatively poor families, rising tuition at public universities and pressures on financial aid at private ones may cut off access, also. We very much need continued access to all institutions of higher education in order to keep those institutions strong and diversified and in order to strengthen the labor pools to be recruited from many different communities.

I want to touch on a relatively new issue important for the research and teaching institutions, one of which I am privileged to lead. I refer to technology transfer. I mean here the attempt to commercialize the research developed in our laboratories. As the research institutions raise funds from private donors and governments, they also hope to develop or license new medical devices, pharmaceutical products, software and hardware, and bring to the market the fruits of their faculties inventions. I am in favor of this development. We need the funds! But above all, we have responsibilities to further the common good by having our faculties be enterprising and by moving their ideas and inventions to the market.

However, we must keep in mind that universities are not profit centers. We exist to develop and disseminate knowledge, old and new. We must continue to be teaching and service institutions as well as research ones. And we must maintain balance across the range of human activities that we investigate and celebrate: the arts, humanities, social sciences, and professions, as well as the hard sciences and engineering.

The tasks for higher education are many. The rewards from our efforts will be immense and these rewards must accrue across our society and, indeed, across the world.

Max Grinnell is a graduate student in the School of Social Service Administration. He is A.B. 1998 from the College. He welcomes comments at kmgrinne@uchicago.edu