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Engagement Scholarship Consortium Keynote Address

October 8, 2019
Denver, Colorado

“Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

Abraham Lincoln said those words, and I believe he would repeat them to us if he could be here today, gazing upon the people-centered academic institutions he helped to create.

Lincoln, the son of illiterate parents from the country’s vast frontier, called education “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

In America’s darkest moments, in the turmoil of civil war, he expanded the promise of public education to higher education, extending opportunity beyond the wealthy and well connected.

It is important to recall the times in which President Lincoln had the vision and wisdom to sign the Morrill Act, creating land-grant education: 1862 was the year of the Battle of Shiloh, Second Bull Run, and Antietam.  The losses were nearly beyond comprehension.  Uncertainty was high and hope was scarce. 

But Lincoln recognized that the story of human progress is inextricably bound to education. 

The universities I have led run the gamut from the Ivy League to the land-grant tradition, and I can tell you where Lincoln’s vision can best be realized.

Hint: It is not in places that drive b-list celebrities to bribery and bamboozle-ry.

The biggest career shock I received was moving from one of the nation’s top public land-grant institutions—the Ohio State University—to the rarified Ivy League atmosphere of Brown University. During my opening news conference, I made the seemingly innocuous comment that private universities ought to be in the public service. From the ensuing criticism, you would have thought that I proposed turning Brown into a trade school.

My subsequent experience at Vanderbilt confirmed that isolationism and self-engagement often dominate at elite private universities. One day I woke up and asked myself, “Why in the world am I here?”

I have observed American higher education from nearly every vantage point. And I am here to say that, if you are looking for prestige, you should not look to today’s land-grant universities.

If, however, you are looking for purpose, Mr. Lincoln’s universities have an unparalleled potential to advance the common good.

Unfortunately, many have lost their way, abandoning their unique role in favor of aping other institutions. They have allowed the quest for prestige to divert them from the power of purpose.

I am sure Lincoln would agree that land-grants should be leading the way toward opportunity for all, not following in others’ well-worn paths.

A quote widely attributed to him, perhaps spuriously, nonetheless captures his unpretentious wisdom: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Be fiercely land-grant, Lincoln would urge us. Reclaim your mantle as the “people’s universities.”

Michigan State should not be Michigan. Purdue should not be Indiana University. NC State should not be UNC at Chapel Hill.

Differentiation, not amalgamation, is our path toward reclaiming the public trust.

When I started as a university president, 95 percent of Americans held higher education in esteem. In recent years, as our institutions have lost their moorings, they have also lost public support in dramatic fashion.

Students, parents and lawmakers are questioning the worth of public universities, at a time when society needs our unique contributions more than ever.

That is why Stephen Gavazzi and I have titled our forthcoming book about public universities “Fallen Angels.”

But I do not believe it is too late for America’s magnificent land-grant universities to reverse their course. So, allow me to offer you some simple, homespun wisdom that our 16th president would surely endorse.

First, let’s build bridges, not walls.

Lincoln well understood the structural flaws of divided houses. Surely, he would have no patience with the silos we build to encircle ourselves and the walls we erect between our universities and those they serve.

Twenty years ago, the Kellogg Commission urged land-grant universities to return to their roots, engaging in reciprocal relationships with communities to solve local problems and prepare students for real-world challenges. As the commission’s original chairman, I believe we have made progress toward truly “engaged institutions,” but many commission lessons remain unheeded.

The insular nature of universities is still preventing us from fulfilling many of our partners’ needs.

Re-engaging with communities does not mean abandoning our efforts to do great research. But I am sure that Lincoln would urge us to focus on research that benefits our citizens.

For example, West Virginia has among the nation’s highest heart disease rates, as well as an unusually high incidence of low-birth-weight babies. Studying 20,000 fifth-graders, a professor in our School of Public Health found that children who had a low birth weight exhibited more cardiovascular risk factors in fifth grade.

This information will enable doctors to intervene both during pregnancy and throughout childhood to improve prospects for at-risk children.

Second, let’s reinvent Extension.

Looking around today, Lincoln would quickly note that urbanization has transformed American society.

So, he might ask, why are you still running your outreach programs through colleges of agriculture?

At West Virginia University, Extension is an autonomous unit, and its experts have the freedom to collaborate with educators from across all university disciplines.

West Virginia University Extension is also unique in supporting faculty agents in each of the state’s 55 counties, when budget cuts have caused many land-grant universities to change to a regional, rather than county-based, Extension model.

These two distinctive qualities — a university-wide scope and a local focus — have made Extension the front door to West Virginia University.

Our experts are on the ground, using their knowledge and skills to move our communities and state forward.

Lincoln might not understand coding. Famously knowledge-hungry in his youth, however, he would love the way WVU Extension has introduced more than 200,000 students nationwide to basic computer science concepts through plugged and unplugged activities.

Third, let’s transform our faculty reward and recognition systems for the 21st century.

The minutia of promotion and tenure might bore Lincoln, but he well understood that our unique strengths drive the quality of our work.

As he once said, "Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired.”

If education and engagement are priorities, he might wonder, why do our reward systems privilege researchers instead of those who put their heart into teaching and service?

Fourth, let’s overthrow complacency in all its forms.

Lincoln knew the dangers of clinging to outmoded patterns.

As he told Congress early in the Civil War, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

In higher education, thinking anew means unshackling ourselves from two entrenched tyrannies.

We must topple the tyranny of the department and the college by restructuring our institutions.

Rather than organizing our teaching and learning functions for obsolescence, we must imagine the world in 20 years and then reverse engineer.

And we must topple the tyranny of the gerontocracy by infusing our institutions with younger faculty members, staff members and administrators.

I may seem an unlikely advocate for youthquake in higher education. But I know that younger people bring fresh perspectives to the table, and in the noble task of diversifying our institutions, we should seek wide generational diversity.

While overcoming complacency, however, we must dodge the tyranny of the trendy, shunning fads with no long-term viability and a potential to do harm.

Lincoln shared this caution, stating: “I shall adopt new views as fast as they shall appear to be true views.”

Fifth, let’s emphasize accountability to our citizens by cutting costs wherever possible.

Lincoln called bureaucracy “selfish,” so I suspect he might ask: Bureaucracy kills, so why do we not kill bureaucracies in universities?

Sixth, let’s discard the notion that change must start with “strategic planning.”

I hold an opinion that violates higher education orthodoxy: Strategic planning is a myth! I will pause for a moment while you recover from your swoons.

Strategic planning at universities functions less often as a compass and more often as a speed bump that impedes progress.

Instead of strategic planning, we need strategic action. Instead of long-term objectives, we need immediate solutions.

By now, it should not surprise you that Lincoln left us a fitting clarion call.

“It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’”

Seventh, let’s help students celebrate the freedom to speak and accept the responsibility to listen.

Universities must not be echo chambers that reinforce fashionable thought. Not talk-show spectacles where the loudest voices prevail. But incubators for open and respectful discourse regarding even the most contentious issues.

As Lincoln himself said, at a time of greater division and despair than we can imagine, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”

Tragically, our nation’s college campuses have sometimes become settings for disruptive behavior, as students demand “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to protect them from opposing viewpoints. 

Universities reflect the splintered state of America today. How many of us follow current events through a carefully curated selection of news and social media sources that only reinforces our own pre-conceptions?

Land-grant universities have the power to lead Americans out of that splintered, blinkered state and into one of fairness, enlightenment and respect for our shared democratic heritage.

But to do so, we must acknowledge the lopsided political ideology of the faculty in many disciplines, especially the humanities and social sciences.

Too often, this creates a homogeneity of world view which the faculty themselves fail to recognize, despite claiming to champion difference, diversity and tolerance.

This lack of ideological diversity has increased disenchantment with higher education among some students and parents, notably those in the rural areas our universities first developed to serve.

Lincoln famously assembled a “team of rivals” to serve in his cabinet. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “they represented very different spectrums of political opinion from very conservative to moderate to radical. And as long as he could keep that coalition together by keeping these people inside the tent, he was actually keeping those strands in the country together as well.”

Surely, he would remind us to nurture our students’ questioning spirit, while encouraging them to consider all viewpoints.

Finally, let’s throw out U.S. News and World Report.

The greatest and most pernicious undermining of higher education in the recent past has occurred because of this and other so-called ranking systems.

We must eschew the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, chasing rankings that we know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence.

If rankings have distracted parents and a growing number of Americans from public higher education’s greatness, we must blame ourselves for failing to tout our life-changing power.

Traditionally, a student at Ohio State or West Virginia or Colorado State has not been pressed to best her peers with a slightly higher GPA or tout her standardized test scores; she has had the more difficult — and more important — challenge of leading herself and her world toward ever-greater achievements.

Maybe that is why 40 percent of our current governors hold at least one degree from a land-grant institution.

Maybe that is why the second most popular alma mater for CEOs of American companies is not Wharton or Harvard but a land-grant university, Penn State.

When Stephen Gavazzi and I recently surveyed land-grant leaders, they steadfastly maintained that creating opportunity for students was their universities’ greatest strength, and that the road to the American dream still runs through land-grant campuses.

Unfortunately, the rankings race obsession in higher education is erecting barricades along that road for some students. Selective admissions policies and the competition for top students has led many institutions to emphasize merit scholarships at the expense of need-based awards.

Many public universities have become places that serve the middle and upper classes but fail to provide opportunities for the very people land-grant universities originally targeted.

Only six out of 50 flagship universities are affordable for most students, according to a recent Institute for Higher Education Policy report.

This is important because income inequality is increasing, as top earners’ salaries skyrocket above everyone else’s stagnant wages.

Higher education is still a launching pad toward higher earnings, but its high cost is leaving many students with disastrous debt and creating an educational divide and a wellness divide that is as cavernous as nation’s economic one.

According to a study by The Hill: Those without a college degree are less likely to marry. They are far more likely to use tobacco. They are more likely to abuse drugs. They express less life satisfaction. And among white Americans without a college degree, life itself is growing shorter.

If Mr. Lincoln returned among us today, many shocks would await him—not least of all the diminution of presidential discourse from the Gettysburg Address of a self-educated man to the “liddle” tweets of an Ivy League graduate.

But surely one of the most painful shocks would be the re-imposed barriers between people from humble circumstances and the privileges of education.

As historian Joshua Wolf Shenk has noted, Lincoln grew to manhood just as society was transforming to admit youth onto paths that were beyond their parents’ profession and class identity.

Later, Lincoln reflected on a time when people were “utterly unconscious that their conditions or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings, but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality.”

He continued: “It is difficult for us, here and now, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was, and how long it did, of necessity, take to break its shackles and to get a habit of freedom of thought established.”

How fitting is it that this prototypical “self-made man” inaugurated land-grant education, which has been a beacon of hopes, dreams, and progress for millions.

He would surely encourage us to open our doors to students approaching from alternative paths.

Our University moved its WVU Institute of Technology to a more robust location and expanded opportunities for people to earn in-demand skills.

In West Virginia, you hear a lot about the need to create jobs, which is real, but the state also has many jobs that are wanting for people. We just have not trained them in the right way.

The vision is to build two-, three-, four-year programs that are glide-paths to our medical school, to our law school, to our graduate programs in engineering and other fields.

I believe this is the most transformative decision that our university has made over the last 20 years, one that will transform our state.

To reclaim the mantle of “people’s university,” we must learn how to be elite without being elitist, which means jumping off the ratings treadmill and guiding people down a trail that leads us closer to Mr. Lincoln’s ideal.

That is why the only rankings I care about are the ones that show West Virginia near the bottom on measures of health, well-being and prosperity. And helping our state rise in those rankings is my tireless quest on behalf of the 1.8 million West Virginians I serve.

As Honest Abe knew well, a can-do spirit has always helped this nation thrive; and that spirit that shines forth from his gift to us: America’s crown jewels, our land-grant universities.

We must pioneer progress.

We must prevail with purpose.

We must nurture hope and resiliency and prosperity.

And we must renew the covenant between “the people’s universities” and the people who need us most.