Rising costs, declining state and federal aid, lagging enrollment, and poor retention and graduation rates make this a challenging time for America's public colleges and universities. How they respond will determine what higher education will look like in the rest of the 21st century.
University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs, Bowling Green State University's Mary Ellen Mazey, and Gordon Gee of Ohio State University see a future in which universities must reinvent themselves. Recent addresses about the state of their universities offer glimpses of the new world they envision.
Dr. Jacobs said improving health care in northwest Ohio is a vital part of UT's strategic plan. Encouraging fewer residents to go outside the region for care will create jobs, he said, and could add $750 million annually to the local economy.
In response to UT's lagging retention rate, the president named a new provost and chief academic officer whose training is in accounting and strategic planning, and whose experience largely has been on the business side of academia.
To meet emerging academic challenges, UT will develop cross-disciplinary schools in business, science, and medicine. To "assist in the accomplishment of that portion of our mission which charges us to equip our students for a life well lived" -- literature, art, and history -- Dr. Jacobs offered a conceptual, tech-driven Center of Excellence in Creative Design and Technology.
At BGSU, President Mazey's goals include increasing enrollment and retention, while attracting better students. She pledged that BGSU would devote more resources and energy to recruiting high-achieving students, including more students from other countries.
At the same time, she said, BGSU is developing strategies to "increase tech transfer and commercialization." It is, she added, "part of our goal to create and support a culture of faculty, staff, and student entrepreneurship."
In his most recent address, President Gee said he wants OSU to become a top-10 public university by 2020. Universities that adapt to the new model, he said, "will honor their histories."
Toward that end, OSU has opened an office for technology commercialization. Mr. Gee said that it will improve lives, while monetizing university research and innovation. OSU, like UT, also plans to become something of a venture capitalist.
But Dr. Jacobs insisted the relationship between faculty and students remains the core of the university. "In a centuries-old tradition, and in a changing world," he said, "this constant remains: We exist as an institution to foster and facilitate these relationships."
As more universities choose not just to follow a business model, but also to fund, promote, and create business enterprises, there is a danger that what Dr. Jacobs calls the "fundamental role of the university" could be de-emphasized or lost.
The arts and humanities are often referred to as the soul of a university education. If they become an afterthought, the biblical question comes to mind: What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?