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Ahead of the Curve: Future Shifts in Higher Education

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Educause 2003 Annual Conference
Anaheim, California

Wednesday, November 5, 2003


Good morning.

It used to be that physicians stayed "ahead of the curve" with new research in their specialties by reading medical journal articles. Yet, medical literature databases today house more than 10 million abstracts, and are adding 7,000 to 8,000 more each week.

"Keeping up," of course, is impossible for a single individual to manage. And, further, to synthesize that volume of literature — which could yield new research paths to follow and new medical breakthroughs — simply is beyond individual human beings, who read an average of 60 pages per hour — even beyond a team of individuals.

Enter text-mining — software that will "read" 250,000 pages an hour, scanning reams of documents, categorizing information, and making links and visual maps which can lead researchers in new directions they otherwise might not have considered.

Reading and synthesizing medical journals for possible research trajectories is but a single example of the innovations that are transforming science and technology. And consider, if you will, how much this will accelerate when the burgeoning research in biotechnology is fully underway.

These innovations are the direct result of a complex combination of forces at work in a new environment — encompassing education, research, opportunity, challenge, ingenuity, creativity, imagination.

Innate ingenuity, powered by higher education, and experienced in advanced research, is driving vast and swift advances and innovations — changes that are transforming the world as we have known it. That transformation is occurring perhaps more swiftly than we realize. And, herein lies our challenge.

This new world, we hardly need be reminded, is global and multidisciplinary. It is evolving new configurations and relationships between and among nations, peoples, cultures, philosophies, values, governments. No longer are we contending, for instance, with a single, geographic "adversary," as was the case throughout the Cold War.

Our new "opponents" are what we might call "threats without borders" — SARS and AIDS, for instance, forest fires, power blackouts (Northeast USA, Italy, and Switzerland), global warming and species extinction, of course, "terrorism," and the myriad challenges of a significant segment of global population without sufficient food, education, and health care.

These are the challenges nations and peoples are facing in our young century. And, to contend with them, and to resolve them, virtually all entities — from governments, corporations, and policy agencies, to universities, other institutions, professions, even individuals — are having to devise new strategies, new alternatives, new approaches. Indeed, transformation at some level, is the order of the day, and almost universal.

As it is for other entities, these same forces are profoundly affecting the work and the methods of university-based scientists and engineers, educators and administrators, which, as the president of a major research university, is of prime focus for me, because universities must themselves evolve to meet the new challenges.

The pedagogical, research, and administrative changes necessitated by new technological capabilities and methodologies require nothing less than the transformation of the university as we have known it.

And, information technology, certainly, is in the unique position of being both one of the transformational causes, and, at the same time, one of the primary enablers of the needed changes. In fact, "The American imagination," begins a recent federal report, "challenged to invent new technologies to meet vital national needs, launched and powered a digital revolution that ultimately swept around the globe." Further, the National Academies Press publication, "Making the Nation Safer: The role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism" opens with this statement: "Information technology (IT) is essential to virtually the nation' s entire critical infrastructure." The university is a key element of that infrastructure, and information technology is the leading edge of other technological innovations and scientific discoveries which are changing and challenging the university.

Let us look, for a moment, at the changes that are taking place in science and technology, today. The developments are closely paralleling the rise of information technology. We speak of Information Technology emerging into the era of "convergence of technologies".

Science itself is progressing along a similar path of convergence, which is providing the next generation of discovery and innovation. The nature of the research which achieves the greatest breakthroughs is now largely multidisciplinary, at the interstices where the traditional disciplines meet. Genomics, as we know, relies on both biological sciences and computer technology to make the computations needed for gene mapping. And, it is beginning to work the other way, as well.

The cutting edge in computer science research, for instance, is the study of biological systems as models of complexity and communication — to learn how, and why, living systems naturally organize themselves — and then to apply that learning to computing systems.

Nanotechnology, for instance, enabled the study of shell-creation by mollusks, which led to the creation of transistors ten times thinner than a human hair and a thousand times stronger than steel.

The field of pharmacogenomics leverages advances in molecular diagnostics and information technology, to provide for a future of more refined personalized medicine, which will transform the practice of medicine.

In the energy sector, could the great Northeast blackout have been avoided? If there were more advanced IT control systems in the national electrical grid infrastructure, could a cascading event such as the one in August of 2003 have been prevented? Or, the blackout that affected Switzerland and most of Italy at the end of September?

During the hurricane season this year, we all were reminded of how much the ability to track the path of a storm can save lives and property. Using advanced modeling programs, we have transformed our ability to predict storm paths.

How then do universities transform themselves to further such advances? How do we educate the next generation of technological leaders? How do we use such advances?

More than half a century ago, the eminent scientist Vannevar Bush, a pivotal figure in hypertext research, envisioned a device he called "Memex." He described it as "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility." Today, high-performance computing, networking, and information management technologies have given us what he envisioned, what a recent government IT research and development report calls a "far-reaching support system for human thought." That is what information technology represents — a support system for human thought, and human creativity. Since human thought and creativity are the currency of the university, proper utilization of the ever-growing capabilities of this exceptional support system can be our means of transformation.

This support system will make possible a goal to maintain and infuse a global perspective into all aspects of education. For decades, the trend in both pedagogy and scientific research was specialization — knowing more and more about increasingly focused and more specialized areas. Today the boundaries of specialization are blurring, just as the newer "threats" are borderless. We have a responsibility to take our young people beyond the boundaries — national, as well as disciplinary. We must answer simultaneously how to do the science, and why it is important.

We must do a better job of teaching our students, and ourselves, how to be critical analyzers and consumers of information — because information as an enabler, has sweeping implications for a knowledge-based institution, which the university surely is.

We also must educate our students to work between disciplines, to new innovative aspects of science, engineering, and technology. The convergence of information technology and biology can be made as exciting to an 18-year-old, as a trip to Mars. Nor is a Mars space journey out of the question within a few decades, with ever increasing advances in materials science, propulsion, and computation.

We must examine pedagogical approaches and learning styles, i.e., how we educate. The four-year-olds, who could program the family VCR, grew up on MTV, video games, instant messaging [IM], and text and video messaging cell phones, are now of college age. We must understand their cognition patterns, and devise ways of organizing pedagogy to enable them to use their skills and perspectives in yet more creative ways. Clearly, information technology is the tool that can take us beyond the classroom walls — to offer our students the kind of interactive, experiential learning to which they have become habituated, in ways which enhance their cognition, their analytical abilities, and their specific knowledge.

Simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion — the ability of geographically dispersed sites to collaborate in real time — all are pedagogical tools that we can help us in this task.

And, what would the demise of the traditional lecture — imparting information verbally to a relatively passive audience — portend for the university professor? Some say that the role of faculty might devolve into that of an educational consultant. I would contend rather that this presents faculty with an exciting and stimulating opportunity to rethink, and to reinvent, their functions and responsibilities, and their relationships to students.

If we are to prepare our students for leadership in science, engineering, and other disciplines as well, faculty will be the agents. As the store of information available and retrievable continues to increase exponentially, faculty will be the gatekeepers, the advisors, the mentors. Information is not necessarily knowledge, and knowledge is not always wisdom. The role of discipline-based faculty will be to help students acquire the problem-solving skills, to guide them in understanding and identifying which problems are important to solve, and to help them to interpret results. This shares ground with those who use text-mining software, who say it works best when guided by smart people with knowledge of a particular subject. In fact a 2002 report from the National Academies on Information Technology and the Future of the Research University suggests that "faculty may come to interact with undergraduates in ways which resemble how they interact with doctoral students today," i.e. to migrate away from the tightly scripted, classroom-centered, seat-based form of instruction — the pedagogical model perhaps most threatened by the ubiquitous availability of IT-based services — to a more interactive, coaching approach. It is possible to see a new faculty-student relationship becoming more like the enduring, sometimes lifelong relationship that existed in ancient Greece between teacher and pupil.

Technology has a vital role to play not only in pedagogical improvement, and in extending the reach and scope of research, but also in effective management and governance of the university. Technology can help — is helping — universities to streamline, to enhance efficiency and effectiveness, to ease compliance with governmental requirements, and to enhance communication between and among academics, students, leaders, governments, and the wider world. Text-mining, not unlike that available for physicians, can help academic and administrative leaders to access, sort, find connections among, and link disparate information sources essential to the governance of the university.

The 2002 National Academy of Sciences report warned that information technology is reshaping research universities, and urged against complacency in the face of technological developments. The report raised the specter that universities which did not keep up with technology might not survive. It urged the academy to respond "with carefully considered strategies backed by prudent developments — not just to avoid extinction, but to actively cultivate opportunity."

The report suggests that academe adapt its approaches to governance, to react more nimbly, and to reconsider the "academic culture that allows the demand for consensus to thwart action, and in which consultation is often defined as consent."

At this point there are still more questions than answers about the full impact of information technology in transforming the university. Questions such as, what will be the roles of non-profit and for-profit online education providers? Should students pursue their degree work only at the university at which they matriculated, or pick and choose among on-line courses from a smorgasbord of universities? Does it then make sense for every university to support the full complement of disciplines, or should they share courses, seminars, discussion groups, degree programs in cyberspace? In a world where knowledge is a commodity, how far should a university go in accepting or seeking profit-making ventures?

Each institution of higher learning must find its own answers to these questions, and more. In the future, some institutions will find better answers, in a more timely fashion, and will flourish in comparison with their peers.

The impact of information technology is not limited to research universities. "I believe that a more dramatic transformation is about to shake the foundations of scholarship in liberal arts," says William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. He posits that the availability of such tools as text-mining will help humanists to sort the mass of information sources in their exploration of hypotheses, and to visualize relationships among social and cultural phenomena.

Many of the questions will be answered, in time. What we know, now, is that we must be prepared for disruption, and that universities must devote sufficient resources and investment to getting ahead of the curve in this new era.

Information technology cannot just be grafted onto existing plans. It must be an integral part of a new planning process. I am a believer in strategic planning. Before I came to Rensselaer, I chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and instituted a strategic plan for the agency, which consolidated its functions, and altered its regulatory strategy from a prescriptive, purely deterministic approach to a risk-informed, performance-based regimen. Both the regulatory agency, and the regulated nuclear industry have flourished under this strategy, and safety and performance metrics have significantly improved.

Essentially, we have adopted an analogous risk-informed, performance-based planning and action approach toward the goal of transforming Rensselaer, in the 21st century into a top-tier, world class, technological research university with global reach and global impact — worthy of its historical legacy.

The plan first analyzed our strengths and weaknesses, and redirected resources to areas where we could lead, including vital and important new areas in which we must lead — riskier areas, in probabilistic terms. The plan contains no specific section addressing information technology, except as a research topic. Rather IT and its uses permeate every aspect of the plan — emphasizing distance learning, collaboration, networking, and other changes that will address the potential of information technology to transcend not only boundaries of time and space in research, but also the walls of the classroom, and across administrative processes. IT has become a major research thrust for Rensselaer. It also is a key enabler in streamlining administrative functions — allowing a more performance-based approach to university management.

We have taken the administrative side of the university and made it knowledge-based as well. One way we have done this is by implementing a data warehouse, which has improved the planning and budgeting processes through online budget tracking and forward forecasting. In human resources, we have improved and automated position tracking and control. The data warehouse is being extended to gifts management in our development organization. All of this has brought more robust information, and greater efficiency of process, to decision makers at all levels in the university. In fact, I believe we can do more by actually developing and deploying text mining tools to access, process, sort, link, and summarize information in disparate databases to better manage our enterprises.

Over the past four years at Rensselaer, we have taken a number of the steps toward academic renaissance. We have opened new research and education facilities. We have completed multiple projects — campus-wide — to upgrade our facilities. We have recruited distinguished scholars to the faculty, and have attracted record numbers of first-rate students from an ever more diverse range of backgrounds. Our peer-reviewed federally funded research has doubled.

Significantly, the research and academic strengths toward which we are focusing our efforts are biotechnology and information technology. The latter will not only address a discipline of importance in this new century, but will strengthen our in-house capability to use IT as a tool in all our other endeavors.

We believe, also, that the academic renaissance toward which contemporary universities and research institutions must strive should encompass not only effective use of technology in new research fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology — and multidisciplinary approaches to information technology — but also in ways that enrich the learning experience. Global Interactivity is an initiative within the School of Architecture at Rensselaer which will link (in real time) globally distributed teams — on different continents, and from different cultures — in Web-based design charettes on architectural projects set in one country or another — to be followed up by face-to-face teamwork on those projects in one country or another. This makes use of advances in graphical user interfaces, fast data transmission, voice and video, and, in fact, a kind of tele-immersion.

Six weeks ago, Rensselaer broke ground for one of the most exciting projects in our long and distinguished history. We call it the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC. We believe that EMPAC will be a powerful and creative force on our Troy campus, throughout New York's Capitol Region, and, indeed, on the world cultural stage.

The creation of EMPAC is a key strategic component in our commitment to maximize our interdisciplinary potential, to explore where the sciences and the arts intersect — and to create the sort of interactive educational capability to which young people will respond. Sitting at the nexus of technology and the arts, it will allow artists to use digital and other media to extend their creativity. Concomitantly, it will allow scientists and engineers to extend their knowledge and technology in the pursuit of artistic creativity.

EMPAC will be a major art institution with international scope, and a research platform, set within a university dedicated to the highest achievements in science and engineering, discovery and innovation. By definition, EMPAC will inspire experimentation, cross-disciplinary inquiry, and advanced research. Nevertheless, EMPAC is first and foremost an art institution. Therein lies both its daring and its promise.

Why should Rensselaer commit a considerable sum to creating an art institution, when we are engaged in elevating our status as a technological research university?

Our answer lies in concepts I stressed earlier: responsibility, renaissance, and leadership. The construction of EMPAC and the development of its innovative artistic program are elements of our broader campaign to educate scientists and engineers who are capable of assuming roles as leaders. The science and engineering community, and society at large, need scientists and engineers who are not only technically brilliant, but also articulate and broad-minded — leaders who will draw lifelong inspiration from their experience at EMPAC.

The creation of EMPAC stems from the conviction that education must occur in an environment that offers diversity of thought and experience, dialogue and exchange. With EMPAC, Rensselaer will be able to provide a platform where research and technology interact with artistic creation and reflection. As a result, students will benefit from a richer and deeper understanding of culture and society, as well as the roles and application of research and technology.

Rensselaer has a long-standing reputation for producing graduates who can solve complex technical problems. The creation of EMPAC will give our students exciting new opportunities to explore problem-solving through the medium of the arts — a convergence, if you will, not entirely unlike the convergence of biology and information technology, or behavioral science and information technology — the multidisciplinarity to which I alluded earlier.

Because EMPAC will be a technologically advanced facility, it also will support research in acoustics, visualization, animation, and even, for instance, simulation, in 3-dimensions, of biological molecules. Information technology obviously will play a major role in all of this.

EMPAC is a key element of one institution's approach to the academic renaissance necessary to infuse the spirit of innovation into the generations who must carry forward the global leadership this country has long exercised. Each academic institution will have its own approach, based on its mission, academic strengths and specific situation.

The National Academies' report, to which I referred earlier, is partially entitled "Preparing for the Revolution," and the coming decades will be nothing less than that for America's institutions of higher learning. With the proper preparation, however, and the tools of information technology — our "support system for thought" — universities can emerge to a renaissance as even more valued contributors to the nation and to the world of the future.

But renaissance requires change across a broad front. I have spent the bulk of my time speaking about change in the university — a unique challenge. Such change would be daunting enough under the best of circumstances. However, we are constrained to undertake this transformation during a period when our country is contending with a quiet crisis not well recognized or understood.

The interest of young people in science and technology is flagging. The number of students entering our institutions of higher learning intending to pursue scientific and engineering studies has been falling. We are not building the cohort of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists to replace those who are soon to retire.

We are only in the middle of the pack among developed nations in measures of secondary and post-secondary educational attainment. The need for academic achievement is particularly acute in the very areas which are most needed to keep pace in a world where scientific, engineering, and technological expertise is increasingly prized — as the ticket to prosperity by awakening giants such as China and India, for example.

The current science and engineering workforce in the U.S. is aging — the number of individuals with science and engineering degrees reaching retirement age is likely to triple in the next decade. A recent GAO report about NASA, as well as congressional testimony by NASA Administrator Sean O'Neill, shortly before the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, indicated that 15 percent of NASA scientists and engineers can retire now, and 25 percent of them in 10 years. This will especially impact areas critical to NASA's mission. The same holds true in other federal agencies, and technology-base corporations, and non-profits.

The foreign students, on whom we have come to depend to augment our own dwindling supply of new scientists and engineers, are no longer coming to the U.S., or staying, in the numbers to which we have been accustomed.

Some are seeking their educations in other developed countries because of tightened immigration policies in the U.S., or in their own countries, as indigenous educational institutions have grown and strengthened. And, increasingly, those who have been educated in this country are leaving for new opportunities in their home countries, as other nations quickly and quietly catch up to the U.S. in areas in which we have excelled in the past.

The situation raises a very basic question — who will do the science and engineering in the United States in the 21st century? And, if we fail to replace our scientific and technological cadre, will we lose our preeminent position in the world — a position which always has been driven by scientific and technological innovation, and discovery?

Our preeminence in science and technology long has lent the United States its global leadership. Now that a single "enemy" nation no longer exists, a legitimate goal of science and technology in the 21st century is to address the "threats without borders" which endanger the planet and its peoples, and to raise the standard of living for a world population which will double by mid-century. It is the legitimate goal for the United States to optimize our scientific and technological capacity, and to continue to exert responsible global leadership. While the common element, between today's challenges and yesterday's arms race and space race with the former Soviet Union, may be competition, it is more benign and collegial — with the U.S. seeking not to win in a zero sum game, but to maintain its economic standards, and its share of discovery and innovation, while other nations also rise.

Our ability to compete in the coming decades depends upon our young people. In that regard, we have a lot of work to do.

We got a wakeup call from a set of studies known as TIMSS — the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1999, which included science and mathematics achievement of primary through secondary students in 38 nations. TIMSS showed that, while U.S. fourth graders were close to being the best in the world in the areas tested, U.S. eighth graders were at or below international averages, and high school seniors were near the bottom. The latest figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that U.S. 15-year-olds are no better than average in scientific and mathematical literacy, and well below our main economic competitors. This, despite the fact that the U.S. spends more than all countries, except Denmark, at the primary level, and all, but Switzerland, at the secondary level. And, we are unequalled in our spending for higher education.

This tells us that we are essentially underpreparing our students for higher education in science and engineering, and that we are getting less overall for our educational dollars — certainly at pre-collegiate levels.

Lack of preparation may have had an impact on enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher learning. Between 1967 and 1992, overall college undergraduate enrollment increased from 7 million to 15 million, but has remained essentially unchanged since that time. That is partly — but not totally — a function of a decline in college-age population. The decline in population will reverse itself between now and 2010, but not enough to reverse the decline in undergraduate enrollment, and graduation, in science and engineering.

Between 25 and 30 percent of U.S. students enter college intending to major in science and engineering. However, less than half of them complete a science and engineering degree within five years. The non-completion rate is even higher for minority students and women.

Minorities, traditionally, have been underrepresented in science and engineering. In 1980, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students earned less than 8 percent of about 175,000 undergraduate natural science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. By 1998, these three minority groups earned about 13 percent of slightly more than 200,000 degrees in those categories. That is improvement, but not parity, with traditional students, considering that, in 1998, minorities represented almost a third of the total 24-year-old population, versus a little more than 20 percent in 1980.

Women, also, are increasing as a percentage of science and engineering students at all levels, particularly the graduate level. The latest available figures show that women represent 43 percent of the graduate enrollment in natural sciences. Women in underrepresented minority groups have a higher proportion of graduate enrollment, relative to minority populations, than women in other groups. Half of the African-American graduate students in science and one-third of the African-American graduate students in engineering are women. Overall, however, less than a fifth of all engineering students are women, while in other historically male-dominated fields, such as medicine and law, enrollment has almost reached gender parity.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate enrollment of minority students and women is increasing faster than that that of men and white students, and that percentage will continue to increase. According to the report, the proportion of white students dropped by 8.1 percent over the most recent 10-year period. During the same period, enrollment of minority students steadily increased and now make up about one-third of the student population (1999-2000), compared with only one-fourth a decade ago (1989-1990). If we are to build our population of scientists and engineers, this is where we must look. One of the major challenges to our education system is to reach out to these students, who are the underrepresented majority in science, engineering, and technology.

The lack of interest of our young people, overall, in science, engineering, and mathematics presents us with the prospect of a downward spiral that would particularly affect our leadership in information technology (not to mention other under-girding technologies).

This is exacerbated by the out-migration of certain technology jobs. As you undoubtedly know, U.S. firms have moved lower-level information technology positions overseas, almost since the beginning of the computer revolution. However, now the export of higher-level jobs is becoming a new reality.

The New York Times recently reported an internal discussion at IBM during which top IBM employee relations executives projected that three million service jobs would shift to foreign workers by 2015, and that IBM should move some jobs, including software design, to India and other countries.

"Our competitors are doing it, and we have to do it," The Times quoted an IBM executive as saying.

Andrew S. Grove, Intel co-founder and chairman — one of the founding fathers of the U.S. high-tech industry — recently warned that the U.S. is "under siege by countries taking advantage of cheap labor costs and strong incentives for new financial investment." Grove said that India's booming software industry could surpass the United States in software and tech-service jobs by 2010. Grove gives us some idea of the intensity of the coming challenges in the title of his book on exploiting company crisis points. It is entitled, "Only the Paranoid Survive."

If students already lack interest in science, engineering, and mathematics, and the number of prospective jobs in science and technology in this country appears to be diminishing, are these young people likely to choose careers in these fields? And, if our skills erode, more such jobs may move offshore — to where the skills are. This represents a spiraling situation which can jeopardize our future prosperity, our global preeminence, and even our national security.

What we really are talking about here is not just jobs, per se, but national capacity in critical areas, as the NASA situation so aptly illustrates — areas that other countries, both developed and developing have decided are key to their economic and security futures.

The commitment of other nations to development of key enabling capabilities is most strongly expressed in information technology. But, information technology is simply following a path that other disciplines have long trodden. Science is a global enterprise, and was, long before globalization became a common term for the growing interdependence and interconnection among the world economies. The great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, who also was a medical doctor and researcher, observed, more than a century ago that, "There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table."

As a general proposition, the U.S. gains from the scientific discoveries of other countries. The same holds true for economic development in other countries, as they become markets for our goods and services. Certainly, there are dislocations as jobs migrate, just as there are dislocations when imbalances create trade deficits in the U.S.

But these dislocations — in skilled jobs as well as in trade — will be absorbed. But, if we are to maintain our lead in innovation, the foundation for our competitiveness, the key is education.

This means educating the underrepresented majority — assuring them a strong grounding in the fundamentals of science and mathematics, so that their options are not precluded before they even begin. It further means reaching out to all of our young people to rekindle (or kindle, as the case may be) in them an interest in science, mathematics, and engineering. We must nurture that interest through the use of new pedagogical approaches which employ the best technological innovations in clever ways, and which spur young peopleís creativity, and allow them to become the next generation of thinkers, discoverers, doers, and problem-solvers.

To summarize then, technology is disruptive. Information technology is really disruptive. We can not have all the answers today, because we do not, and will not, know all the questions. I encourage you — us — as the National Academies' report I cited urges — to engage quickly, now, in broad-based, grass-roots, deep discussion, to think through the issues and their impact on American higher-education — to get ahead of the curve.

As those who hold the future in our hands, we can do no less.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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