September 13, 2013
On the unique calendar of higher education, this is one of the ritual moments of a new academic year, a time to welcome our new faculty and administrators, a time to reconnect and regale each other with the stories of summer, a time to reflect together on the opportunity for a fresh, new beginning. And what better way to mark this “New Year’s Day,” than by honoring colleagues distinguished by their scholarship and teaching. They come from around the globe. Their interests are wide-ranging yet share common concerns for bringing some of the most critical issues of our time into sharper focus; for finding pathways toward greater sustainability, greater justice, greater empathy and compassion for all. Their work and yours reveal how broadly and deeply we share a desire to engage the world and educate our students to do the same.
This afternoon, I bring to your attention another concern that challenges all of us in higher education. It is the challenge of “relevance.” I don’t mean “chasing the market,” or mindlessly adopting every new program or technology. I do mean attending to the cacophony of voices demanding universities to prove their worth, and to prove it against benchmarks may seem antithetical to our mission and ignorant or disrespectful of values we cherish as educators. You read some version of this nearly every day:
Students and their families asking serious questions about the return on their investment, and measuring this by the employment opportunities after graduation.
State and federal financial aid diminishing, just as student need increases.
A regulatory environment requiring costly compliance measures to satisfy the demands of accreditors, the NCAA, government agencies, and others.
The President’s proposal to rate universities by measures that include “gainful employment.”
It may be tempting to dismiss all of this completely or to think the professoriate is immune from much of this bureaucratic meddling.
After all, the University of San Diego does enjoy a superb reputation. Demand for a USD education is strong. We’ve just recruited a talented group of new faculty and admitted one of the largest freshman classes in the university’s history. We have healthy enrollments in our graduate programs. We’ve just added a School of Engineering to our academic family. In many ways, things at USD have seldom seemed so bright.
But this is equally true: The many publics whom we serve or on whom we depend do not necessarily agree that everything is just fine. And their dissatisfaction is evident by increasing demands for a “results-based” not only a “vales-based” education.
It may be convenient to measure the value of an education strictly against the benchmarks of the market, but these are very limited touchstones. Yes, we do care about what our graduates “do;” we are equally, if not more concerned, about the kind of men and women they will “become.”
Our challenge, more and more, is to make a strong case for the relevance, the worth, the necessity of formative experiences and values-based curricula we offer our students. More; we must do this while an economically stressed population and the politicians they elect threaten to reduce our work to a few graphs and spreadsheets.
In the 1930’s a Japanese firm built a magnificent bridge that spanned the Rio Choluteca in the Honduras. Considered an engineering marvel in its time, it served for decades as a major conduit supporting commerce and the growing population of the region. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc throughout Central America and, as some of you may recall, it hit Honduras particularly hard. The loss of life was horrific; the loss of property staggering. Within Honduras alone, 150 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Yet, the most modern of all the bridges, the Choluteca Bridge survived intact. But there was a problem, in the aftermath of the storm:
The River Moved.
Suddenly, that magnificent bridge, so brilliant in its conception and solid in its construction, became a relic, an anomaly, existing bizarrely out of context. It became irrelevant.
Higher Education is a lot like that bridge. For us, the river has moved and continues to move. You name it: the ubiquity of technology, the economic stresses on our families, the dramatic upheavals in health care, in education, in the legal profession—all requiring change and adaptation. The course of higher education, just like the course of the Rio Choluteca, is changing. Our work is to engineer our way through this creatively and confidently, despite the difficulties of the task.
As educators, you thrive within the great tension of your own disciplines, always reaching back for the accumulated wisdom of the past while leaning forward toward new and marvelous discoveries. Just as a bridge sustains its strength because of tension so, too, does this university. The collision of ideas, our great debates and struggles are the hallmarks of university life. That tension strengthens us, especially when confronting the dilemmas and problems that threaten our purpose and the values we cherish.
Higher Education is experiencing its own “hurricane,” and like the Choluteca Bridge, we are strong enough to survive. But, unlike that bridge, we must figure out how to sustain our relevance, our mission to be that life-giving bridge for our students, our alumni, our community, and for each other.
If we are truly committed to bridging the best of our traditions and values with the contemporary needs and demands of the world, we must work together. Conversations are occurring throughout the campus about how best to respond to our collective concerns; discussions abound about reckoning with the challenges and opportunities posed by technology, about the right size and right components of a new core curriculum, about the smartest way to prepare law and graduate students for the tumultuous changes in their professions.
The University of San Diego has never been nor will it be a rigid bridge to “No Where.” Ours is constructed from the talents, intellects, and imaginations of the men and women of our university.
Today, we are celebrating some of the best and most creative minds of any university community, representing hundreds of brilliant and generous men and women. Now, more than ever, we need to harness your best ideas and think carefully about our future. Through your teaching and scholarship, through your departmental planning, or through our collective life as a university community—we can ensure that the University of San Diego bridge remains a vital link between the best of the past and the promise of the future.