An Engaged University: West Virginia Universitys Role as a 21st Century Land Grant University
I begin with a quotation from a great European statesman, Jean Monnet, who talked about a future he envisioned for Europe as it emerged in the smoldering rubble and destruction after the horrors of World War II.
Life is a prodigal of opportunities to act, but one has to be prepared and by long reflection to recognize them and exploit them as they occur. Life is made up of nothing but events; what matters is to use them for a given purpose.
When I was a graduate student, more than just a few years ago, one of my professors instilled in me the notion that in doing a paper or making a presentation, one should always boldly state the thesis up front. My thesis is that for West Virginia University and most particularly land-grant universities that aspire to be leading American and international universities, engagement is priority number one. Put another way, just as Jean Monnet saw opportunities and a good future for Europe in 1946, so tooin a different contextthe future for this university is not in some distant tomorrow, but today. How? By building on the already extensive and successful initiatives that we have under way and fusing our discovery and learning mission with engagement and outreach.
Our land-grant universities have always been involved externally, initially through the agricultural function (still important, but now a subset of our total activities). This, of course, was done through our Cooperative Extension Services programs, our continuing education activities, and in providing access and opportunity for young men and women who, until the land-grant movement emerged in the second half of the 19th century, had few chances to acquire the benefits of a college education.
The terms Extension and outreach are to my thinking less descriptive than the term engagement. But I have little interest in debating labels and terminology. What ultimately counts is the concept of a major state university being in partnership with its community, its state and region, and, yes, the wider world with which we are inextricably involved in this new globalized environment. Ultimately, all that counts is what we actually do in effective working partnerships with businesses, civic organizations, government agencies and other universities. Everything we do in the futurewhich is right nowmust involve the fundamental responsibility of educating men and women of all ages from our diverse populations (we can call this learning); discovering new knowledge and applying it (typically labeled research); and serving society. The idea for a revitalized, expanded and broader involvement of universities with society is one of the products of the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State University and Land-Grant Colleges. With presidents of mainstream research-intensive universities, we organized the commission in the mid-90s. Without going into its history and its six reports or calls to action, we promoted this message: Americas public universities needed to adapt to changeindeed take charge of change. While proud of the heritage and accomplishments of the land-grant movement, we now needed to provide leadership in a United States and a world far different from that of the 20th century.
Our most significant report and recommendations was the one we labeledThe Engaged Institution.It was our best-seller in terms of request for copies and hits on the Internet. It reflected some of the historic roots of the land-grant universities and their commitment toservicein the agriculture arena through their extension function that started in the 19th century. But it went far beyond that. We argued that universities have a broad commitment to being of use and value to their society. The engaged institution report was specific in recommending how engaged partnerships between universities and their communities and regions could be implemented. We insisted that education and research or discovery needs to be applied to be socially and economically useful. We suggested that making engagement a central university mission was a way for universities to engender support politically and financially by being seen as vital and useful to their communities, not just as so-called ivory towers located within defined campuses and, somewhat mysteriously, doing good things in cloistered ways.
You can read the engaged institution report on the NASULGC Web site, but I quote the three things we said marked a successful engaged institution:
1. It must be organized to respond to the needs of todays student and tomorrows, not yesterdays.
2. It must enrich studentsexperiences by bringing research and engagement into the curriculum and offering practical opportunities for students to prepare for the world they will enter.
3. It must put its critical resources (knowledge and expertise) to work on the problems the communities it serves face.
The philosophy of the 21st-century engaged university is clear: it is an educational enterprise that has great talentsbrains if you willwithin its faculty and staff. These educational talents must serve society by providing a variety of learning opportunities for students; by discovering new knowledge and applying it for the good of America; and by partnering with social and economic interests in its state and region in ways that meet not university needs, but community needs.
This, of course, is the core land-grant mission, and so it must forever be.
There is no one size fits all model for how engagement and partnerships work. The partnerships are built around problems defined by the partners, with goals and agendas shared in common and that lead to outcomes that are win-win for everyone. A member of the Kellogg Commission put it best when he defined a community needs-assessment with which his research-intensive university was involved.Our attitude,he said, isif its part of the communitys agenda, we want to think about how we can make it part of ours.
So, what has this engagement business got to do with West Virginia University? The answer is: everything!
This is a student-centered university, a place of opportunity for countless people seeking a better lifeincluding many first-generation college students. And this university is the pride of an entire state and a passionate worldwide alumni family. We are and will continue to be engaged with education and learning for students from all kinds of circumstances in life. Universities must put students first, because if they do not do that, they are neglecting one of their fundamental purposes.
But a university, while enormously about students, is not just about students. Students come to a university such as this because at its core they find a community of talented and engaged faculty and staff. Our staff and faculty do many vital things, but above all, they do exceptional work in assuring that we fulfill our core responsibilities: helping students learn, discovering new knowledge and engaging with West Virginians to solve problems.
As one of just many examples, faculty members share ideas with citizens through programs like the Community Design Team that brings volunteer professionals together with people in West Virginia communities to share ideas for building on their communitiesstrength and improving their economies. University health care providers perform life-saving outreachI call it engagementacross the state by bringing medical care to rural citizens, such as screening school children for heart disease risk factors and assisting low-income patients in obtaining needed medication.
Our Center for Civic Engagement provides a great mechanism for students and faculty members to integrate service into the learning experience. Last year, students donated about 182,000 hours of service to the community doing everything from producing public relations materials for community agencies to conducting on-site research on community policing practices. But they learned and got something from this service: they received an opportunityan educationfor self discovery and, equally important, the chance to learn new marketable width=100% skills.
WVU is already an engaged university. We have an emerging culture of engagement. But we can and must do more. We need to reach out to collaborate even more effectively and intensively with citizens on social, economic and community interests. We need to do a better job of quantifying and publicizing the services already provided through the state and engaging with our states citizens in partnership ways. This kind of engagement is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart way to build political support and attract the financial resources we need to do our vital work of serving people in our state, the region and the nation.
Intensified engagement will help attract resources. But to do so, we need to be aggressive and entrepreneurial in pursuing competitive research funding that furthers our work as a major economic engine for West Virginia. This means also additional private fund raising, even as we work to attract the best possible appropriations from the state and the largest possible grants from the various federal agencies so essential to a research-intensive university.
We are good. If we were not, you as faculty and students and staff would not be here. And I would not be here either. But being good, bluntly, is not good enough; we must be better and always strive to improve. I like the passion that I sense and find at this university. I was emotionally moved last August when at the welcoming event for 5,000 new freshmen, they rose and sangCountry Roadsto celebrate their new status as Mountaineers. I sang along with them. Fortunately, my voice was not picked up as I am a bit limited in my singing capabilities.
We have good and exciting stories to tell about our research, with the only problem being that when I cite two or three programs, I ignore mentioning 20 others equally as exciting.
But as just one example of a unique opportunity for West Virginia University to engage through its educational and research strengths with the needs of the state and its promising future, think of our Advanced Energy Initiative. This is the program in which faculty researchers work on developing clean coal power generation, innovative technology for extracting coal and high-efficiency engine and vehicle technology. There is our collaborativeconsortiumwith Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, wherewith millions of dollars of researchwe aim to develop clean and efficient technologies for the use of fossil fuelssomething in which West Virginia is extraordinarily rich.
Energy research is critical to our nations future. WVU is uniquely poised to becoming an internationally recognized source for research and policy that will establish and influence socially and environmentally responsibleand effectiveenergy production and use. This is engagement, and we need more of it in all of our educational and academic programs.
There is another reason why I am passionate about engagement as a core mission of universities. It all goes back to the original land-grant mission, which draws no distinction between pure learning and the liberal arts and the economic purposes of universities. Though some may disagree, universities are a part of society even as they need a certain level of independence for their creativity to blossom in order to serve society effectively. This, to use a familiar phrase, involves learning for its own sake, which is of estimable value. But that objective in no way conflicts with the absolute imperative that universitiesand most especially land-grant universitiesserve economic development needs. We have always done this, going back to the early years of the land-grant movement after the enactment of the 1862 Morrill Act.
The universities of the 19th century and most of the last century had an overriding obligation to serve the agricultural sector. Why? Because it was a major component of economic development needs. It is still significant, but economic development today encompasses everythingnot only the food industry and nutrition, but manufacturing and other businesses, including bringing good education to students in our elementary and secondary schools. Moreover, while this is not the occasion to review the changing financial circumstances of American universities in their state and federal support, the blunt reality is that our universities must be increasingly entrepreneurial and engaged in economic development efforts, along with the commercialization in appropriate ways of their discoveries in partnership with business and economic interest. The engaged university that serves community and state needs is in a much stronger position to generate political and public support for its work and the resources it needs to serve society.
We are a good university; we can and must strive to be better. I believe we can and will. We are an engaged university with our state and its people; but we can be more engaged and more helpful as a critical partner in the social and economic development of West Virginia. I believe we can and will.