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August 6, 2013 — By Robert J. Sternberg
When I tell people that the University of Wyoming can be the No. 1 land-grant institution in the country, some of them look at me as though I am out of my mind. How, after all, can we compete with institutions like the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State and Texas A&M? Well, let’s consider what it might mean to be the No. 1 land-grant university.
The mission of a land-grant, I believe, is to educate the next generation of active citizens and ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world. In other words, land-grant graduates succeed when they make the world a better place in which to live. The University of Wyoming likely will never be No. 1 in national media ratings, such as by U.S. News and World Report. But such ratings are largely based on an elitist mission for a university. Being No. 1 in such ratings would not constitute being No. 1 in serving the land-grant mission. Land-grant institutions differ fundamentally from elitist institutions in five key respects:
1. Access versus exclusion. Elitist universities take pride in rejecting as many applicants as possible. Land-grant institutions, in contrast, emphasize access. They want to admit every student who is capable of doing the work. Their mission is to reach out to the state and support its economic development by contributing to the creation of a highly educated workforce.
2. Abilities as modifiable versus fixed. College-admissions tests, such as the ACT and the SAT, are fundamentally based on a notion of abilities as fixed. Their publishers take pride when studies find that interventions change scores minimally or not at all. Institutions that focus on students with scores at the top of the distribution are buying into the notion that abilities are fixed. Land-grant institutions, in contrast, take pride in their view of abilities as modifiable. They are betting that students with lower test scores and even grade-point averages can become smarter through education. Indeed, the purpose of education, they believe, is to make students smarter.
3. Abilities as broad versus narrow. Standardized tests, as they now exist, measure primarily memory and analytical abilities. When admissions officers focus on test scores, they are implicitly buying into a notion of a person’s potential as susceptible to being captured by a number. But successful leaders show the creative skills to formulate a vision, the analytical skills to ascertain whether their vision is a good one, the practical skills to implement their vision and persuade others of its value, and the wisdom-based and ethical skills to ensure that their vision helps attain a common good. Great leaders further have a strong work ethic, a sense of responsibility, the skills needed to work smoothly on a team, the willingness to learn from their mistakes, humility, high motivation to achieve, integrity, and resilience in the face of failure. Standardized tests do not measure these essential leadership skills.
4. Practical education versus the “life of the mind.” In some elitist institutions, professors harp on college as developing the “life of the mind.” From their point of view, the more removed an institution is from the complexities and harshness of the everyday world, the better. Land-grant institutions, in contrast, emphasize a practical education -- one that will prepare students not only for their first job, but also for their second, third and fourth jobs. We want our students to be job-ready on Day 1 as they enter the workforce. We do not believe in an education divorced from everyday reality. Both our general education and specialized education teach students to think, to reflect and to appreciate how others before them have approached and solved life’s problems. In our teaching, research or outreach, we at the University of Wyoming want to embrace the real world, not be divorced from it.
5. Public versus private accountability. Many, but certainly not all, elitist universities are private. Their responsibility is primarily focused on private stakeholders of the university (e.g., students, professors, administrators, alumni, donors) as envisioned by a president and a board of trustees. Public institutions, and especially land-grant institutions, have a responsibility to everyone in their states, because they are taxpayer-supported. They cannot afford to be anything less than fully and publicly transparent, because the public typically is their largest donor. They cannot risk turning inward or battening down the forts. Without public accountability, they are in jeopardy for their existence.
So, how can the University of Wyoming become the No. 1 land-grant institution in the country?
First, UW can strive to educate the future ethical leaders who will make the world a better place. It can recognize that when leaders fail, it is rarely because of a lack of IQ or ACT points, but rather because of foolish or unethical behavior. (When scandal tarnishes a leader, it almost always is foolishness or lack of ethics or both, not lack of IQ points, that topple the leader.) This means admitting students to the university for ethical leadership qualities, not just for ACT scores and grades; educating students for ethical leadership through academic and student-affairs programs that emphasize practical case studies illustrating ethical and unethical behavior; and assessing students broadly for their life learning, not just their memory for facts, many of which will soon become irrelevant or forgotten.
Second, UW can strive to be No. 1 in its service to its state as well as its communities and its nation. Such service was the reason UW was created in the first place. This requires the university proactively to reach out to businesses, nonprofits, K-12 education and state government to learn how it better can partner with these institutions better to serve the interests of the Great State of Wyoming.
Third, the university has to strive to be the very best it can be in the three components of a land-grant institution -- teaching, research and outreach/extension. You cannot reach the top unless you provide world-class academic services at an affordable price. We constantly need to strive to be better in the products and services we deliver to our stakeholders.
Finally, UW can remember that becoming No. 1 is a process, not merely a destination. Ironically, when institutions reach the top or even near the top of whatever rating scale they care about, they often become complacent and self-satisfied. Instead of trying to improve, they focus on maintaining the status quo. Once you stop striving to become better, you inevitably fall victim to hungry competitors ready to knock you off your smug pedestal.
The University of Wyoming can become No. 1 -- not at everything, but at what it cares about most: its education of the next-generation workforce with workers who feel not a sense of entitlement, but rather a keen desire to serve the employers for whom they work and the states in which they live -- graduates who will create a better world for all.
Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming.