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Coleman challenges universities to do a better job of telling their stories to the public

AAU President Mary Sue Coleman (right) takes part in a Q&A after her keynote moderated by Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Photo: Douglas Levere

By SUE WUETCHER

Published November 17, 2017

“I truly believe that this is our biggest challenge — and we’d better take it seriously — to better explain our work and to link it to American prosperity.”
Mary Sue Coleman, president
Association of American Universities

Research universities need to do a better job of explaining to the public the impact and importance of research, and the role it plays improving lives, AAU President Mary Sue Coleman told an audience at UB on Wednesday.

“I truly believe that this is our biggest challenge — and we’d better take it seriously — to better explain our work and to link it to American prosperity,” Coleman said during her keynote address at this year’s Critical Conversations series held in Baird Recital Hall on the North Campus.

As part of her two-day visit to UB last Wednesday and Thursday, Coleman also met with students and faculty during small group discussions focused on leadership and research, and joined a panel of UB faculty and students to discuss “Higher Education in the 21st Century.”

During her keynote, Coleman, who last year assumed the chief leadership position in the Association of American Universities, which comprises 62 of the most distinguished research universities across the country — including UB — cited numerous statistics in making a case for “Why Research Universities Matter.”

She said that more than 85 percent of U.S. high school graduates enroll in college within eight years of graduation, and 80 percent of those enroll in a public institution. More than 17 million undergraduate students are currently enrolled in American higher education, and eight out of every 10 are matriculating at a public institution.

She pointed out that every state has at least one public university that is recognized for its high, or very high, research activity — places like Wisconsin, Florida, Berkeley and UB — and that most states have several universities of this caliber.

But, Coleman noted, states have been reducing the amount of money they spend on higher education, with state investment declining by 30 percent from 2000-15. And she called the funding scenario since the Great Recession in 2008 “pretty numbing,” with 41 states spending less per student in the 2017 academic year than in 2008. Public funding for higher education dropped 45 percent in Louisiana, 34 percent in Pennsylvania and 53 percent in Arizona since 2008. Relatively speaking, New York is doing well, with a decline in state investment of only 2 percent over the past decade, she said.

“If the stock market trended like this, our nation would be in a dead panic,” she said. “Sadly, we are not.”

Higher education must be supported and valued at the state and national level or “we will stumble on the global stage,” she said. “We must reiterate why universities matter. Higher education is a public good we all embrace and we promote. That cannot be said enough.”

Coleman, who served as president of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa before joining the AAU, called public universities “the workhorses of American teaching and research,” with powerful benefits to society.

She said university graduates will see greater financial success in their lifetime than a typical high school graduate, with a difference in earnings that “far outpace the original cost of that degree.”

Moreover, university graduates are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, more likely to vote and are the first to volunteer and give back to their communities, she said.

“This is the story that we need to tell about our students, our discoveries and our universities.” To be silent, particularly in the current political climate, she said, “is to acquiesce. This is not the time for that.”

She noted higher education must do a better job of explaining college affordability, the role of federal student aid, and university research and the critical role it plays in improving lives.

“And we must challenge ourselves — really challenge ourselves — to explain the impact and importance of university research,” she stressed.

Coleman admitted that she is as guilty as anyone of “not doing it right.” During her tenure as president of the University of Michigan, she said she was happy to talk about the university’s record levels of research funding, successful fundraising campaign and growing endowment.

“But how do taxpayers hear these numbers? We may sound like for-profit organizations, enriching ourselves,” she said.

"So we need to break it down,” she said. “We must explain how we create jobs, how we support business by purchasing supplies, how fundraising and endowments support students, how our research develops the scientists, the social workers, the teachers, the physicians that we send to the world.”

She offered an example of how universities can better tell the story of the value in investing in university research.

Coleman said that while it’s well known that federal research grants support faculty, graduate students, postdocs, clinicians and other employees, the impact of that money goes much further than most people realize. Research requires equipment, technology, goods and services, which means a research grant awarded to a university will benefit vendors across town and across the country, she said.

She noted that Michigan researchers validated the economic and social effects of university research by tracking more than $2.2 billion in federal research spending at 15 research institutions in 12 states. They found that money had spread to vendors and contractors in more than 1,600 counties across the nation — “one out of every two counties in the country reaped the benefits of research conducted at only 15 universities,” she said.

“University research not only delivers cures and answers, it also provides livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people.”

Yet, higher education isn’t a commodity, she explained. “Higher education exists to serve the public. We do have a compact with society, and especially with the citizens of our states, to work on their behalf and promote the greater good.”

Coleman cited several issues that she says America’s leaders need to confront to prepare students “for a global future.” They included ensuring access for students from “all walks of life,” particularly low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students; correcting the way we fund higher education, including finding new revenue streams and more efficient ways to operate; and maintaining flexibility as institutions to “keep academic disciplines relevant by encouraging faculty to assess constantly what they are teaching and why. The very nature of what we do in universities has changed,” she said. “We must now teach students to be constantly flexible in applying and using knowledge rather than just cramming in the facts.”

Coleman concluded by saying that she couldn’t talk about research universities without addressing the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban.

She called the proposed ban “wrong-headed” and said it poses a “fundamental, long-term threat” to America’s “research and innovation.” Limiting the entry of students and scholars from those eight countries “conveys the damaging message that you are no longer welcome here,” she said. “Our success, nationally and globally, is due in no small part to our ability to attract the very best students and faculty from both the United States and the nations of the world.”

Coleman said that research institutions have worked closely with the federal government “to protect the country from those who would harm us,” and they will continue to do so “to ensure national security in ways that will not undermine our nation’s status as a top destination for global talent.”

READER COMMENT

As a participant in the following day's small group conversation on research, it was important to hear Dr. Coleman remind us of the Morrow Act that brought our AAU state universities into existence to serve PRACTICAL societal needs. The emphasis at UB on technology transfer from the inventive work of our students and faculty must be intensified significantly to achieve this mission.

 

My impression is that most universities, and particularly UB, have done an inadequate job of serving the public in this regard. We have emphasized the gathering of funds for our internal purposes, rather than the generating of new knowledge for the public benefit.

 

Robert E Baier