A New American University: The New Gold Standard Next


The Existing Models: The Gold Standard

The distinctively American model of the research university came into being in the nineteenth century when the German model of the elite scientific research institute offering specialized graduate training was “grafted” onto the traditional American undergraduate liberal arts college. Following the lead of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, fifteen American institutions came to define the American research university: some of them private, such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, and Yale; others, state and land grant universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, and the University of California; still others, new universities made possible by private bequests, such as Stanford, Caltech, MIT, and the University of Chicago. These institutions have produced the vast majority of Ph.D.s in the nation for the past one hundred years. Many here today are graduates of these elite universities, and very nearly everyone who has attended a college or university in the nation has been taught by faculty who are their graduates.

Such has been the influence of these fifteen institutions that, to this day, every university in the nation measures itself according to their standards. Make no mistake: these universities represent the gold standard—but, as I hope to explain, it is the gold standard of the past. These universities are considered definitive prototypes, and their disciplinary departments are the departments by which all others are judged. I think most would agree that academic departments tend to structure themselves to resemble the most highly-ranked departments in their respective disciplines.

As a consequence, academic departments tend to resemble one another across the nation, each more or less a pale reflection of some distant ideal. Although innovation is celebrated, and new interdisciplinary arrangements suggest that variation is possible, academic culture on the whole encourages each department of physics to compare itself to the physics departments at Caltech and MIT, each department of economics to compare itself to the University of Chicago, and each department of theater to compare itself to Yale.

Our nation’s research universities resemble one another in other respects as well. They are concerned with a certain academic profile in their student body. They have defined their academic excellence by the academic qualifications of their incoming students—an input-driven model. ASU will instead focus on outcome-determined excellence, that is, we will admit students with different interests and indicators of intelligence, even different levels of high school preparation. We will judge the success of our university by the success of each student on a case-by-case basis.

Without exception, our nation’s research universities have made considerable efforts to encourage diversity and recruit students from varied social backgrounds. Each undergoes continuous self-assessment in order to produce exhaustive demographic profiles of each entering class to demonstrate their successes year after year. Without question these initiatives have produced solid results. Yet, at heart, our research universities remain elitist institutions.

Without exception, our nation’s research universities have made considerable efforts to engage society—to reach out to their local communities. Each announces ambitious initiatives intended to persuade the socio-economically disadvantaged and underrepresented that they, too, are among the university’s constituents, that they, too, are stakeholders—that the university belongs to them as well. Without question these initiatives have made a difference in public perception and community involvement. Still our research universities sometimes seem like walled enclaves with little direct engagement with society.

We cannot hope to develop a university that is ubiquitously present, but we can certainly strive towards that objective, and reach out not only to our students, but also to the families that send us their children, and the families that don’t. The university cannot be set apart from society, concerned only with the education of the most intelligent children of its more successful families. Certainly we must accomplish that task, but in addition we must reach out across the broad spectrum of society, and seek to have an impact on the daily lives of people from all social strata.

There are other reasons—reasons having to do with the heritage of this state, changing demographics, and economic and environmental factors—why the traditional university model is not right for Arizona State University.


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