President Dennis A. Ahlburg
October 22, 2010
It is an honor to stand before you today as the 18th president of Trinity University. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of all the many faculty, staff, students, and administrators who built the university we have today. Two of my predecessors, Presidents Ron Calgaard and John Brazil, are with us today, as is Mayor Julian Castro, leader of the city of San Antonio of which we are so proud to be a part.
Inaugural addresses are much like academy awards speeches...only longer, much, much longer! They give you the opportunity to thank all of the people that you should have thanked earlier in your career. So, I would like to thank my late grandparents who wisely emigrated from the Old World of Europe to the New World of Australia. I also thank my late parents; even though they did not understand what I did, they always were proud of me and allowed me to stay in school and pursue my dreams. I thank my wife, Penelope, and our son, Benjamin, who make every day a joy. Penelope's plans did not include a move to the United States and certainly did not include being "First Lady" of anything, but she loves Trinity as do I and she puts her heart and soul into the university. I also thank my in-laws Ian and Susan Harley who forgive my ignorance of history, a subject they love passionately, and who show that life-long learning can be a reality and not just a nice catch-phrase.
One doesn't get far in life without supportive friends and colleagues and I have been fortunate to have both. Some of my childhood friends have travelled from the Deep-Deep South (also known as Australia) to share this wonderful day with us. I have also been fortunate to have worked at the Universities of Minnesota, Colorado, Southampton, London, Australian National University, and the East-West Center in Honolulu, where I had gifted colleagues, several of whom are here today. I would especially like to thank Dick Easterlin and Morty Schapiro for encouraging me to work in the field of demographic economics, as well as my longtime research collaborators Steve DesJardins, Brian McCall, and Eric Jensen for sharing the intellectual challenges and knotty policy problems we have worked on. Morty Schapiro, Mike McPherson, Avner Ben-Ner, and Larry Benveniste encouraged me to pursue a career in academic administration. On most days, I am grateful to them. I want to extend a special welcome to our inauguration speaker Professor Roger Ainsworth, Master of St. Catherine's College and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. Roger is not only a talented scientist, but also a connoisseur of one of the world's finest automobiles: the E-type Jag. Thanks also to Trinity's Board of Trustees and the recruiting committee headed by J.R. Hurd who took a chance on a very un-liberal arts looking candidate. J.R. also began my initiation into all things Texan.
I no longer ask a Texan "how big is your ranch?"
And I now know how to say "welcome y'all" with conviction if not with the correct intonation.
So, welcome to the inauguration all y'all!!!!!
In his recent book "The Marketplace of Ideas" Louis Menand of Harvard wrote: "Knowledge is our most important business. The success of almost all our other business depends on it, but its value is not only economic. The pursuit, production, dissemination, application, and preservation of knowledge are central activities of a civilization" (p.13). To the propagation of knowledge, I would like to add that our work at colleges and universities is also about cultivating certain traits, attitudes, values, and practices in students, preparing them for citizenship in an increasingly complex world.
I'd first like to make a few remarks about how well Trinity University is doing with regard to the "knowledge business" and then offer some comments about some of the attributes we are trying to foster in our students.
The United States currently has 17 of the top 20 universities in the world, and 35 of the top 50. So, it would seem that the United States does not have too much to worry about in terms of challenges to its world domination of higher education. However, a little knowledge of history, and a little is exactly what I possess, suggests that the mighty often fall and fall quickly. And, in fact, there are signs that all is not well in the U.S. educational system-at all levels.
Let me share a few statistics on the state of education in the United States. Bear with me for a few moments because I am after all an economist who loves numbers. To people like me, a number is worth a thousand words, perhaps because we are not particularly adept in the use of words.
At one time, the United States led the world in the percentage of adults 25 to 34 years of age with a college degree but it now ranks 12th out of 36 developed nations. Although two-thirds of high school graduates attend college, only 56 percent of these students graduate within 6 years. The graduation rates of low-income students and students of colour are 10 to 20 percentage points lower than those of white students. Graduation rates in Texas are below these figures and dramatically so for Latino students (Lee and Rawls 2010). Indeed, as Mike McPherson and Morty Schapiro have noted: "educational opportunity in the U.S. is spectacularly unequal from the earliest days of children's experiences in schooling" (McPherson and Schapiro 2006:50). Additionally, creativity, an engine of American progress, appears to be losing power: creativity scores have been declining since 1990, especially for young children (Kim 2010).
Why is it that the success rate in college is not greater? Part of the answer sadly is that not all of our high schools are preparing students who are college ready. Fewer than 25% of high school students taking the ACT-entrance exam possess the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level college courses (Wall Street Journal 2010:1). And many high school students do not get as far as graduation. In Bexar County 40 percent of African American and Latino students and 20 percent of white students do not graduate. This situation is not only a threat to our national well-being but also reduces an individual's life-chances, that is, all of the things that make life worthwhile.
Many reasons have been put forward to explain the relative decline in the educational leadership of the United States. One reason, I propose, is that as a nation we seem to have lost the plot in our approach to education. As many educational scholars have noted, too often education employs a "fill 'em up" model in which students are seen as empty vessels to be filled to the brim by faculty members who are experts in their field. But students are not empty vessels and even if they were, filling them up is not what creates a great educational experience. I am not saying that all colleges and universities follow this model, in fact the great liberal arts colleges and universities do not, but those schools educate a minority of students in the United States. And, unfortunately, inadequate investment in higher education is forcing more institutions to follow this "fill 'em up" model by offering larger class sizes and fewer full-time faculty. Ironically, at a time when Chinese universities are making great strides in moving towards a more creativity-based model (what they see as the U.S. model), U.S. universities are moving towards the old Chinese model of rote learning.
Alan Lightman (2005) has studied great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. A common pattern in such breakthroughs is first, research and hard work leading to a "prepared mind", followed by being stuck on a problem, and, then, experiencing a shift in one's thinking or perception that leads to a breakthrough . Trinity University and other great liberal arts colleges and universities "prepare the mind" so that students can make important contributions in their chosen field, but having "facts" at your fingertips is not enough. Learning how to think like a scientist, humanist, or artist also is essential. Such learning is acquired most easily by working closely with those who are already successful scientists, humanists, or artists, that is, by students working closely with faculty. This is why we at Trinity try so hard to keep classes small and support undergraduate research internships. When a student gets "stuck" on a problem, she or he can get a gentle nudge, or not so gentle, depending on the interpersonal skills of the faculty member, to get that student "unstuck". Such gentle nudges are unlikely to occur when there are dozens or hundreds of students in a class, as is the case all too frequently in higher education today, but, to our great fortune and thanks to the careful planning of all those who have contributed to Trinity University, not here.
Explicit knowledge is knowing "what". Implicit knowledge is knowing "how". Innovation is driven more by implicit knowledge than by explicit knowledge. At Trinity University we make sure that students have deep disciplinary understanding (explicit knowledge) and then we challenge them to apply that explicit knowledge to entirely new situations to discover the "how". How do we create new knowledge? How do we bring together existing knowledge to provide new insights? To do so we challenge faculty and students to work together to discover new "how's". This approach is at the heart of what it means to have a Trinity education and is embodied, for instance, in our new Center for Sciences and Innovation (which is currently under construction, as you could not have failed to notice, especially if you live in the neighborhood!). Research in neuroscience has shown that the brain learns more effectively when it actively generates the material to be learned than when it just passively receives information (Bharucha 2008). That is, learning occurs best when students participate actively in the learning process, not when they are passive recipients of a one-way transfer of information. At Trinity University, students cannot escape being involved in the learning process. In small classes, and with our intensive residential programs, coupled with the type of commitment our faculty members have to being engaged with students, passivity is not an option.
There is nowhere to hide. Nowhere.
Like many others, I would argue that the problems of the 21st century are likely to be more complex than those of preceding centuries and that to be a successful scholar you may need a nudge from a colleague outside your discipline. Attacking complex problems through a multidisciplinary approach is at the heart of Oxford's James Martin 21st Century School and that approach also defines the restructuring of Arizona State University under Michael Crow. At Trinity University, the new Center for Sciences and Innovation will bring scientists together from a variety of disciplines, add a healthy dose of arts and humanities colleagues, fuel them up with caffeine and sugar, and then step back to see what comes out of this exciting mix. I can guarantee that one result will be a dynamic educational experience for our students and what Michael Crow has called "an institutional culture of innovation".
At Trinity University we also bring great minds from around the world and from within our community to address the most vexing local and global problems. One important example of this collaborative approach to problem solving is the "Trinity Project", the brainchild of Trinity faculty member Dr. Christine Drennon, who has brought together many people across disciplines to address inner-city redevelopment in San Antonio. Mayor Julian Castro also is using this approach on a much broader scale to create the road map for the future of our city. Another is Dr. Carolyn Becker of Trinity's psychology department who has attracted national attention for her work on combating eating disorders among young women and is building cross-disciplinary and cross-institution collaborations to combat this terrible social problem.
Martha Nussbaum, the eminent University of Chicago philosopher, has defined liberal arts education as "higher education that cultivates the whole human being for the functions of citizenship and life in general" (Nussbaum 2007:38). For Nussbaum citizenship requires three things: self criticism and critical thought about one's traditions; the ability to understand one's self and others; and the ability to sympathetically imagine the lives of people different from oneself.
Howard Bowen, fellow economist and past president of Grinnell College and the University of Iowa, believed that the personal transformation of students should be at the heart of higher education (Bowen 1977). Part of that transformation is the acquisition of the attributes of citizenship noted by Nussbaum. I would argue that that transformation is much harder to achieve if a student lives at home because, in that case, it is too easy for university just to be an extension of high school (although sadly, sometimes living at home is an economic necessity for many students). An important feature of Trinity University and other great liberal arts colleges and universities is our residency requirement. In general, undergraduates are expected to live on campus for their first 3 years. Why do we resist creative beseeching from students to be allowed to live off campus? Texas journalist Bill Bishop, in his book about the polarization of life in the United States, argued that people sort themselves into groups that are homogenous and avoid people who don't think like them (Bishop 2008). Without interaction with diverse people, intolerance and incivility too often can occur. In her presidential address, Rebecca Chopp (2010:8) of Swarthmore College stated: "Education is, by definition meant to lead us out of the shadows of ignorance, wrong belief, and prejudice . . . so that we are able to see new possibilities."
Public opinion polls and complaints of employment discrimination reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggest that antipathy to Islam and its adherents is rising in the United States. In Trinity University's recent debate about the wording on the diploma we saw how external groups attempted to hijack our civil and well-reasoned discussions and portray them as a battle between Islam and Christianity. I truly believe that our approach to education at Trinity, especially our determination to have a wide variety of views respected and represented at all levels of the university, leads us away from destructive internal divisions. Is this wishful thinking or is there hard evidence to bolster my belief that universities can have this effect? A recent study found that students who were randomly assigned to roommates of a different ethnicity developed more favorable attitudes towards students who differed from themselves, whereas students who interacted mainly with students who were similar to themselves exhibited bias toward others and perceived discrimination against their own group (Sidanius et al. 2010).
Polarization is not only happening within the United States but, unfortunately, it also characterizes our country's relationships with other countries. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that "globalization is a reality, not a choice ... unlike Las Vegas, what happens there- that is, abroad, will not stay there. It will come here" (Haas 2007:16). This new integrated world demands that university students have what Haas called "global literacy", an understanding of language, religions, history, customs, and cultures of other countries. By acquiring global literacy, students will make more informed political, economic, and social choices in an increasingly complex world.
How do we prepare our students for such a complex world, a world in which there are now competing centers of economic and political power?
One approach Trinity has consciously taken is to dramatically increase international representation on campus. Just a decade ago we had few international students. Today we have 250 international students representing 73 countries. Our faculty is similarly international. These students and faculty will understand our history, our culture, our way of doing things. But of equal importance we will gain a deep understanding of their history, culture, and ways of approaching issues.
There is, of course, also an economic imperative to attaining "global literacy". For instance, companies from the United States and other developed nations rushed in to capture the emerging Chinese market. Intense competition among those companies gave the Chinese government power to extract proprietary technology as a requirement to participate in its market. In an example of the 'law of unforeseen consequenceses', these firms have inadvertently ended up creating low-cost Chinese competitors that rapidly gained the majority of the market (Financial Times 2010:7).
Would the story be different if the executives of these companies had a much deeper understanding of China? Would these companies have been better served if their CEO's had attended Trinity and studied in our superb East Asian Studies program?
Another example: Mexico is our closest neighbor to the south and our third most important trading partner, yet how deep is our understanding of Mexico, particularly among decision makers in Washington? Should we make it compulsory for members of congress to attend a workshop run by Trinity's outstanding Mexico, the Americas and Spain program? I think the quality of policymaking would improve if we did!
It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me well that I would not, indeed I COULD NOT, conclude this address without expressing my conviction that a liberal arts and sciences education SHOULD NOT preclude an understanding of business. The aims of liberal arts education and good business education are not that different: critical thinking, the ability to write well and express ideas clearly, ethical behavior and social responsibility. I know that as economic considerations have taken precedence over all others because of the current state of the economy, the arts and humanities now seem to be an expensive luxury that we can no longer afford, but let me assure you here today that this is NOT the view at Trinity, nor is it my view, philistine that I am. Arts and humanities do and must foster the creativity and critical thinking that are at the heart of economic progress.
In closing, I return to the words of Chicago's Martha Nussbaum who challenged educators to do better: "We can and must produce students whose moral and political beliefs are not simply a function of talk radio and peer pressure and who have gained the confidence that their own minds can confront the toughest questions of citizenship" (Nussbaum 2007:39).
This is a challenge that Trinity has embraced and will continue to embrace as long as I am president of this great university.
Bharucha, J. "Cognitive Dilemmas in Higher Education", Forum Futures, 2008:57-60
Bishop, B. The Big Sort, Houghton Miflin; 2008
Bowen, H., Investing in Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
hopp, R. "Hope In An Age Of Clamor", Swarthmore College, May 2010
Financial Times, September 24, 2010:7
Haas, R. "Higher Education in the Global Age", Forum Futures; 2007:15-16
Kim, K.H. "The Decline of Creativity in the United States" www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/10/the-decline-of-creativity-in-the-united-states.
Lee, J.M. and A. Rawls, The College Completion Agenda 2010 Progress Report, The College Board, 2010
Lightman, A. The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005
McPherson, M. and M.D. Schapiro, "Diversity and Higher Education: Racial, Economic, and Political", Forum Futures, 2006:49-52
Menand, L. The Marketplace of Ideas, NY: W.W. Norton, 2010
Nussbaum, M. "Cultivating Humanity and World Citizenship", Forum Futures, 2007:37-40
Sidanius, J., S. Levin, C. van Laar, and D. O. Sears, The Diversity Challenge, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010:1