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“Leading an American Public University in the 21st Century”

Remarks to Delegation of Chinese University Presidents
Delivered in Pavilion VII of the University of Virginia

October 30, 2013

Good morning, and welcome to the University of Virginia.

Today I will speak about the challenges and opportunities of leading a U.S. public university in the 21st century. I will focus on three topics: 1) why public universities are important to the American people and its economy; 2) how they are changing in the 21st century; and, 3) how U.S. leaders are working to sustain and improve public universities.

In many ways, the University of Virginia is the original model of an American public university.

Thomas Jefferson, our third U.S. President, founded this University after America won independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson believed that the new American Republic, and its experiment in democracy, could survive only if its citizens were well-educated and trained for leadership. He created the University of Virginia to serve that purpose.

This is a famous building. It was the first building that Thomas Jefferson built for the University. Jefferson designed all of the University’s original buildings; he designed the curriculum; he hired the first faculty; and he served as the first Rector, or Chairman, of the Board.

This University, and many of our nation’s public universities, remain important because they continue to serve Jefferson’s founding purpose today.

Public universities are important because they offer affordable education to large numbers of American young people. U.S. colleges and universities strive to find talented students whose families may not be wealthy enough to pay full tuition, and to give them access to education.

We use the term “diversity” to describe the consideration of differences in nationality, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and other human characteristics.  Creating diversity in our schools has become a sort of national mission in the U.S.  Universities have created robust financial-aid programs to ensure that college remains affordable for all students.

Our program is one of the best. We created the “AccessUVa” financial-aid program in 2004. We provide support for students from families who are not wealthy. We promise to meet 100% of financial need for all admitted undergraduate students. The need for this kind of aid became especially apparent during the economic crisis that began in 2008. Many families are still affected by the weak economy today, and we remain committed to the promise of access and affordability.

Another reason public universities are important is that they serve and support their home states. UVa does this in various ways in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In one example, UVa partners with UVa’s College at Wise. This liberal arts college is our only branch institution. We advance education, health, and economic prosperity in the economically-challenged southwest part of this state. The effort includes a health clinic; a professional development program for history teachers; strategic planning ses­sions for economic development; and an engineering degree program for working adults.

Among both public and private universities, research universities are especially important, because they produce discoveries that become new products and services that advance the economy. For example, consider the following list of products and technologies that came from U.S. university research. The method for fortifying food with Vitamin D was developed at the University of Wisconsin in 1925. The first general-purpose computer was invented at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. And he first locking seat belt for cars was invented at the University of Minnesota in 1963.

In addition to advances within existing industries, university research has produced entire new fields and industries, like biotechnology and the Internet.

One very important reason that our universities, both public and private, are important is because they provide academic freedom for scholars and teachers. When Thomas Jefferson created this University, he said, “… here we are not afraid to follow the truth, nor to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

This founding vision encapsulates the principles that appear in the “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” published by the American Association of University Professors. The statement says that tenured professors are entitled to freedom in their research and publications; freedom in their classroom discussions; and freedom in their public speaking and writing.

This means that professors can disagree and criticize each other—and they do. They can criticize our national leaders—and they do. Professors can criticize me—and they do.

But academic freedom also ensures that we are able to pursue truth, and to tolerate error, because of the free reign given to the human expression of thought. Ultimately, reason corrects error.

Now I will say a few words about how America’s public universities are changing in the 21st century. First, there is an increasing drive among public universities to gain more autonomy from state governments. This is one result of progressive decreases in state and Federal funding for public universities that have occurred in recent decades. But it also reflects our belief that regulation is expensive. UVa and other public universities in Virginia gained some measure of autonomy through Restructuring legislation some years ago.  My colleague Leonard Sandridge described Restructuring to you earlier this week, so I will not go into detail about it.

The main point is: public universities are better able to manage their operations and plan for the future when they are not overly burdened by state regulation.

Decreases in state and Federal funding in recent decades led to a second change: public universities are now increasingly reliant on philanthropic support. In the U.S., philanthropy is defined as financial gifts by persons, foundations, and other donor groups to non-profit entities, with donors benefitting from associated tax advantages. We use the term “fundraising” to describe the active solicitation of those gifts. These gifts are often converted into endowments that allow the value of the gifts to grow when invested in the markets. A portion of the endowment earnings is released each year to support the universities’ needs and to meet the purposes specified by donors.

UVa recently completed a $3-billion fundraising campaign. Our endowment is currently $6.1 billion. Financial strength give the University stability, and provides a buffer against fluctuations in other funding.

A third change in public universities, which is also partly the result of cuts in government support, is increasing interest in partnerships between public universities and private companies.

For example, UVa is one of three university partners in The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a Virginia research facility related to advanced manufacturing industries. The Center has 15 industrial partners and three university partners. Over the past three years, UVa has received nearly $10.5 million in sponsored research funding in support of the initiative.   

A fourth change that has occurred in all universities, both public and private, is the increasing use of technologies. You may be familiar with Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. UVa has offered several MOOCs on various subjects through the company Coursera. We are offering more this year. In January, we will offer one on the life of Thomas Jefferson, and we hope to translate this one into Spanish and Chinese.

We also experiment with hybrid courses that combine instructional technologies with traditional classroom teaching. We want to experiment with new technologies to improve our teaching in the residential setting. Our professors who have experimented with MOOCs and hybrid courses say that it has helped them improve their classroom teaching.

One more change is that U.S. universities are becoming increasingly global, with international partnerships, education abroad, curriculum reform, and other efforts. Our Vice Provost for Global Affairs, Jeff Legro, will tell you about our efforts to make UVa a truly global university.

Now I will speak about efforts by leaders in government and higher education to strengthen our research universities. The National Research Council, or NRC, was founded by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. It is the working group of the National Academies in the U.S.  The National Academies include: the National Academy of Sciences; the National Academy of Engineering; and the Institute of Medicine.

From time to time, the NRC produces reports to inform public opinion, shape policies, and advance the pursuit of science, engineering, and medicine. In 2009, because of concern our nation’s research universities are at risk, the U.S. Congress asked the National Academies to assess America’s research universities, public and private.

The purpose was to identify the top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to maintain excellence in our research universities.

The NRC convened a Committee of leaders who represented academe, industry, government, and national laboratories. I was a member of the committee. We met over a period of months to discuss the issue that Congress had placed before us. Our recommendations were published in a report titled, “Research Universities and the Future of America.”

Our Committee agreed that American research universities are essential for U.S. prosperity and security. But we also agreed our universities are in danger of decline unless government and industry take action to ensure adequate funding within the next decade.  We also stated that universities must do our part: we must set  goals to contain costs, enhance productivity, and improve pathways to careers.

I will highlight a few of the Committee’s recommendations ...

We urged the Federal government to adopt stable policies and funding for university-performed research and graduate education. This will enable our nation to continue to have a stream of new knowledge and educated people to help us meet national goals and ensure prosperity and security.

We urged state governments to provide greater autonomy for public research universities so these institutions can better compete and respond to new opportunities. At the same time, we argued for restored state funding for higher education, including graduate education and research.

We recommended strengthening the role of business in research partnerships. We recommended collaboration in areas of shared interest, rather than in a customer-supplier relationship.

We recommended that universities improve their cost-effectiveness and productivity. This provides a greater return on investment for taxpayers, philanthropists, corporations, foundations, and other research sponsors.

We recommended the creation of a Strategic Investment Program to fund initiatives at research universities. This Strategic Investment Program would focus on issues of national priority, and be designed to adapt and respond to changing needs and opportunities.

The Committee emphasized the benefit of participation of international students and scholars in our research enterprise. The U.S. benefits when highly talented students and faculty come to our country to study and conduct research. We benefit more when they stay in the U.S. after graduation. The same is true for your country, of course.

The NRC Committee recommended that our Federal agencies make visa processing for international students and scholars as efficient as possible, while still ensuring national security.

And to ensure that doctoral researchers can remain in the country, we recommended that the government should streamline the process for these researchers to obtain permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

This morning I have discussed why U.S. public universities remain important; how they are changing; and how our national leaders can ensure our universities continue to thrive. University presidents have several roles in these issues. We communicate the value and importance of universities. We educate journalists, legislators, and others about the changing nature of higher education. And we work with government and industry partners to improve policies and to create new partnerships.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today about these issues, and I thank you for coming to the U.S. and to UVa to meet with us.

I am interested to hear your questions and comments now.