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Keynote Address

  September 18, 1998

Donald Kennedy

I was going to start out with the answer to the question I know is on all your minds, namely ‘what the hell is he doing here?’ And of course, I am first of all a grateful visitor at the nation’s most famous and most favorite academical village. But second, I am here to be an observant outsider and, as John put it to you, a friendly reactor to your plans as they develop. I have a great admiration for serious planning processes and it’s plain that this institution has begun what will be a very serious, and I hope very productive process.

But I am very much still on the upward trajectory of a learning curve. I spent from last night through this morning talking to faculty members in different groups, asking questions and listening as carefully as I could. And it would be premature, obviously, for me to give you any conclusions at this point. But I do have some observations about the planning process, and I hope some of them may strike a helpful note for some of you.

The first thing that I want to start out with is plain to everybody who knows anything about higher education in America. What you have here by way of starting materials is fine, and that you ought to observe Hippocrate’s first aphorism as you go through this business, namely, ‘first do no harm.’ Don’t foul it up. It’s awfully good.

Second, planning is important, but it is also hard. It’s hard for two reasons. It’s hard for people outside the enterprise always to understand that making change (which is what planning really is) is not a confession of weakness. The best institutions in the world all want to get better. And the very best ones strive at it relentlessly. Levi-Strauss, the Environmental Defense Fund, the American Museum of National History, the World Bank (if you don’t disagree too radically) and the Atlanta Braves all strive relentlessly to get better, even though almost everybody in the world knows that they’re pretty good to begin with. But, announcing a commitment to growth and change is not risk-free. The fact is that ambition sometimes does get confused with admission of weakness whenever institutions plan.

So it’s natural that when they do a tough self-assessment at the beginning of the planning process somebody out there takes it as a kind of indictment of what is already there. I don’t know what to tell you about that, except that the people who react in that way are dumb. And that they can’t hurt you very much. As Mark Twain once said about the music of Wagner, "It’s really not as bad as it sounds." So, persevere. Do the hard things. Say where you think you need to get better, and never mind if people think that that amounts to a confession of weakness.

Next, I want to talk about some fundamental decisions that one reaches when one embarks on this voyage of improvement. The designation of particular areas as candidates for growth doesn’t necessarily indicate that those areas are not performing well. If you think about it, there are three reasons why you might pick school A, or department B or program C as a candidate for attention in a process of the kind that you’ve got under way. The first one is that you believe that there is some need for improvement – that’s the one everybody will leap to.

The second one is that there is an opportunity for improvement. That is, that the discipline represented in that program or department, or the other kinds of opportunities that are available to it, or the needs that are out there in the community dictate that the institution has to make this a higher profile, or more active, or better-supported activity. There’s an opportunity there.

And the third is that there is a capacity for growth and change. That the internal morale, the feelings of people inside about their own destinies, their capacity to make change and their willingness to undergo the risks that it takes, are also present. And that the quality at the start is adequate to ensure that there is a platform to build on.

So, it’s not right to invite or to reach the immediate conclusion that because some organizational element is on the list, that means that they’ve been identified as deficient. It may be exactly the reverse - that there’s a real chance to do something there that’s exciting.

Now, embodied in the decision about what to pay attention to ¼ and now here again I’m going to do the dangerous thing of reflecting back on internal perceptions of quality¼ is where you put your attention. Is it on the places where some combination of need, capacity and opportunity suggest that there is real building to be done? Or is it to invest the marginal dollar and the marginal unit of attention in elements that are already strong?

I will tell you, that one of the topics that has come up repeatedly in conversations in the last sixteen or seventeen hours, has been a question about whether the University of Virginia, in thinking about its own investments in change, should focus on a number of areas in which it is nationally recognized as being at the very top of a field. Or whether instead it should devote its attention to departments and programs that are not highly ranked.

I’m going to take a little risk here and call your attention to a hard lesson I had in this once. Stanford University is partly known as the farm because it has a lot of acreage, and on this acreage it has a lot of roads, some of which are public highways that take community members from point A to point B. There’s about 200 miles of them. And some of them are pretty good roads, and some of them, I assure you, are absolutely awful. And we had a meeting at one time to decide whether we would invest in repairing Palm Drive, which for those of you who have been on our campus, is the extension of University Avenue that extends between all the palm trees with the view of the chapel mosaic in the back and the foothills behind you. Brings a tear to the eye. But it brings a tear to the eye largely because you cannot navigate it without going over potholes large enough to conceal Volkswagens. It has been, until recently, a terrible road. So we had a meeting about how to allocate limited highway resources. And, I said innocently, "Look guys, we’ve got to fix Palm Drive. Everybody is really furious about Palm Drive." Then I got a lecture in the marginal return of allocation of money in highway repairs. It turns out that per dollar, you get more extended use, and more value by far, from making a good road better than you get from making a lousy road ok. And so, economically, it looks like a slam-dunk. And my advisors were saying we really should pay some attention to campus drive. But eventually I had to point out that there were after all, still going to be people who have to use Palm Drive and there’s only a certain length of time that people will tolerate the coexistence of very good and not good at all. That it seems as though the institution has made a terrible decision. And besides, some of the things that may initially not look so good are pretty essential elements if the entire system is to work.

Well, I proceed with considerable trepidation from highways to academic disciplines, but let me use the metaphor in the following way. No responsible university can afford to permit important elements that ought to be part of the intellectual armamentarium of educated men and women to slide into total disrepair. You can’t do that. And there are two reasons why. The first is that you owe some attention to those fields to your students or you are going to give them a warped picture of the structure of human knowledge.

But second, it’s terribly important to recognize that things change. Opportunity strikes where you don’t expect it. I should imagine that the dons of Oxford and Cambridge would have been embarrassed to read in 1875, the academic plan for the life sciences at Oxford and Cambridge that was made in 1855, five years before the publication of the Origin of Species. Who would have known that the relative importance of entire disciplines was to be altered by a single stunning, wonderful revolution. And in the same way, of course, economic opportunity, exciting insights in philosophy or in the humanistic disciplines, changes in how we feel about various forms of art - all these kinds of arriving events change and often change abruptly. How we would feel about investment in these different disciplines.

So, somehow, I think in any sensible planning process, you’ve got to come to grips with the fact that you can’t do everything –at least you can’t do everything superbly. But in seeking a balance, you need to have some attention to what an old Stanford provost called Fred Turman once famously labeled Steeples of Excellence. The areas where you build concentrations of people so that you can develop a very special niche, which you colonize better than anybody else. And the maintenance of a whole set of important disciplines at more than adequate, and if possible, excellent levels.

Returning to that theme and that dilemma from time to time, I think, is going to be an essential part of your process. I hope very much that you will find yourself doing it.

Well, finally I have a few suggestions about notions, themes you might keep in mind as you go through this process.

The first and most important probably, is that it is absolutely going to need broad involvement of faculty and staff and students, if it is to have the kind of propulsion from investment, sub-cost that it’s going to need to get finished. Unless there are lots of participants whose participation has made them believers in the goal, then I think it may meet the fate of so many other processes.

It’s the worst thing in the world to be stuck up on some shelf some place and ten years from now a group of faculty will get together and say "Gee, we really need to sort out this business of so and so" And then somebody will say, "Gosh, I’ve been around here a long time. I remember back in ’98 we started a long-term planning process and everybody worked very hard and there was a terrific report published. Let’s see if I can find it." You don’t want anybody, five or ten years from now, having to look around and scramble through old archives to find the results of this process – it ought to be living and breathing in the institution, and people need to remember it as a watershed event. But unless there are lots of people engaged and lots of people therefore loyal to the outcome, that’s not going to happen.

Second, a thought or two on direction. Interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research is becoming a lot more important. Interdisciplinary teaching is becoming a way of life here as I learned today. New program combinations can be very powerful and very attractive, and they are ways of rekindling enthusiasm in people who may have been in their particular teaching or scholarly ruts for a little bit too long.

That takes me to a more general point about how you think in a planning process. It is so easy to be incremental and marginal. It is so easy to take what is already there as given and then say, "What might happen if we expanded A by 5% and reduced B by 5%" and not think about dramatic and perhaps painful organizational changes that might make a huge difference. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting any particular ones, but I’ll tell you that people who have been engaged in this kind of planning have, for example, looked at connections between Biology and Chemistry and Arts and Sciences and the basic medical sciences. Or they have thought about the combination of fields like Political Economy, Environmental Science (which you already have), Cognitive Studies, Biological Anthropology. You could list without difficulty ten or fifteen combination disciplines that are succeeding here and there, including quite possibly already here, that might need different institutional homes or a different place in institutional organization.

And the last of these context-for-change points is something that I actually feel fairly strongly about, and I will conclude with it. I want to cite some personal skepticism about certain directions that are now being pushed on many universities, mostly from the outside, sometimes a little from the inside. And, I guess part of my conviction on this point results from my own travels here and there, where as a result of my now almost 40 years of association with Stanford, I am asked, "How can we make X name a valley?" "How can we make X, Silicon Valley?" And what I have to answer to the first question is, "Why would you want to do that?"

To the next question, because most people who say it haven’t really thought it through, the second thing I have to say is that that particular set of connections between Stanford and a very active nexus of high-tech industry came about through a series of accidents that I think are very unlikely to be repeated elsewhere for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the climate of the region and the intellectual quality of the people of whatever university is asking the question. It’s just that too many things had to come together, and the probability of that happening elsewhere, I happen to believe is not very high.

But this view of mine is also a product of a belief that I’m afraid the universities contributed to during the international competitiveness euphoria of the 1980s, and it is the notion that one of the highest and best uses of the university is to become an engine for regional economic recovery. And I think there is a lot of nonsense being said about that. We’re hearing a lot of it. We’re seeing some flashy claims on the part of up and coming universities that they should be invested in because they are potential sources of economic recovery and well-being for their regions. Not only do I doubt that that case can be convincingly made in most places. It’s also my view that it depends on a deepness of understanding of what happens in the process of technology transfer.

Technology transfer is not the migration of good ideas out some institutional smokestack, and it is not the production of patentable devices or the development of spin-off companies. Technology transfer, 90 percent of it, takes place in the brains of people walking out of universities with degrees in their hands and new ideas in their heads. That’s how technology moves from place to place. And to the extent that universities really can lay claim to being engines to economic reconfiguration, it is because they do a superb job of educating young men and women through a deep commitment to scholarship and teaching. I think in the long run, keeping one’s eye on those fundamentals is essential in any planning process like this. In that regard, I ask myself already, is the University of Virginia a success at these deep fundamentals, and the answer is: hugely. Can it get even better? Of course. Good luck with this process. I am going to enjoy watching it.


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