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Universities can survive only with radical reform

Schools must break out of their insular mind-set.

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Without a doubt, the current economic crisis is unique for its depth, its broad swath of victims, and its speed-of-light reach around the globe. No one is immune, including higher education.

The response? For many university leaders, the first instinct is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Acting on that instinct is a grave mistake.

Instead, what we need is radical reformation. At this defining moment – when our communities and our nation need us more than ever – we must fundamentally reinvent our institutions. We must become more agile, more responsive, less insular, and less bureaucratic. In so doing, we will save ourselves from slouching into irrelevance.

To accomplish the wholesale change that is needed for our students, our nation, and our world, universities must break out of the silo structures – of departments and budgets and mind sets – that have calcified over time. The world's problems do not fit solely inside the bounds of a mechanical engineering department any more than they do an English department. Conducting research, and educating the people who will solve our most pressing problems, with that stale pedagogical model is irrational and ineffective.

As always, students are way ahead of us, and we need to take their lead. The standard operating principle of today's Millennial generation is fully collaborative. The way they learn is no exception.

One example: The US Department of Energy sponsors a Solar Decathlon, a competition among colleges and universities to design and construct the most energy-efficient solar-powered house. Ohio State's team is made up of 60 students from 20 different majors. Some smaller institutions have joined forces with one another. Santa Clara University, for example, is partnering with the California College of the Arts. Canada's Team Alberta includes students from four different colleges. Now more than ever, we all must see the connection between enterprising, democratic, and resourceful examples such as this and a future of education that fosters creativity, innovation, and daring.


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