Bruininks hosts discussion on future of American universities

University President Bob Bruininks was joined by two other experts to discuss the challenges universities face in an increasingly competitive global system.

Conor Shine

On Thursday night, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks and two other former university administrators discussed the challenges raised by the lack of a coherent national vision for higher education and increased competition from universities abroad.  Their focus then turned to what can be done to sustain the global stature of American universities.

Bruininks, along with former University of California chancellor Robert Berdahl and former Columbia University provost Jonathan Cole, addressed a crowd of 240 people at Ted Mann Concert Hall as part of the College of Continuing EducationâÄôs Great Conversations lecture series.

The panelists agreed the continued development and investment in foreign universities will encroach on AmericaâÄôs dominance in higher education, but the biggest threats to American universities are domestic.

Issues like funding, the influence of outside forces on academic freedom, conflicts of interest and falling into conventional ways of thinking are all problems facing universities that must be addressed internally. 

Cole argued the true value of universities comes from is the ideas and discoveries they generate, and policy-makers and educators must work to preserve universities as âÄúengines of innovation for society.âÄù

âÄúWhat really defines [universities] in terms of their world class status is the quality of the innovations and discoveries that are made as a result of the creation of knowledge,âÄù he said.  âÄúUniversities are the source for a great deal of these innovations and if we disinvest in them as we have begun to do, then I think the nationâÄôs welfare is literally at threat.âÄù

The rise of American universities started in the 1930s and sped up after World War II with the influx of more federal resources.  During this time, institutions built structures and internalized values that allowed for the open exploration of ideas, Cole said.  However after 75 years, he said some of those structures are constraining ideas and opportunities for multidisciplinary work on major problems need to be further explored.

âÄúHow do we open up the system to allow the intellectual energy that is necessary and itâÄôs out there, itâÄôs pent up, to express itself?âÄù he said.

He said universities need to explore more opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with other schools and outside institutions.

Bruininks said the University of Minnesota impacts the state of Minnesota by creating industry and providing highly educated workers for those fields. Universities also spin off companies, work on environmental problems and are involved in the shaping of cultural and social issues.

âÄúI couldnâÄôt imagine a vibrant economy in this state without the University of Minnesota,âÄù he said.