Almost every time I speak at any workshop on higher education leadership, I am asked, “What keeps you awake at night?”
While the question is anticipated, I always pause before answering. I could easily say that finding a way to prepare the underserved population for tomorrow’s social and economic needs worries me the most. We have yet to close the achievement gaps of our Hispanic and African American students and, without their full participation in the workforce, we have no hope of keeping America competitive.
Or I could point to the financial model of higher education, which, to say the least, is unsustainable. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, 400 small private colleges and regional public colleges failed to meet their financial bottom line last year as their enrollment dropped or tuition collection declined.
I could call attention to the various disruptive technologies, like MOOCS, that are knocking loudly on our universities’ doors and demanding serious consideration. While no single force has offered a viable alternative to the traditional university model, their collective impact is surely about to change the higher education landscape forever. Preparing my institution for the turbulent waters ahead is certainly something worth losing a night’s sleep over.
Or, finally, I could cite the increasing burden of federal regulations or court rulings that, as well intentioned as they may be, are reshaping the scope of our mission.
In reality, each one of these issues is more than sufficient to keep any university president up at night. But there is one that worries me the most – and it concerns losing our ability to assemble the world’s best talent.
Generally speaking, there are two types of universities. One has as its primary purpose providing access to higher education at an affordable cost. These institutions are fundamental to our survival. But then there are also those universities that are the repositories of the world’s best talent – people who are obsessed with breaking boundaries, expanding horizons and seeking knowledge. No, I am not talking about sponsored research or writing books. I am talking about those academic Olympians for whom research and discovery are as natural as breathing. They are motivated by their passion and rewarded by their own work. They live for the “Eureka!” moment.
Today, America is the breeding ground for these passionate innovators from all around the world. They come here because American universities provide them the best environment in which to practice their discipline and satisfy their craving for inquiry and examination. To these people, the most important thing is the supportive system, one which provides the tools of exploration and the teams of similar-minded people. They will travel far and live where little is familiar to them just as long as they get the opportunity to pursue their passion.
When Asian universities were at their pinnacle several centuries ago, it was because they had succeeded in creating that magical environment and assembling that talent. Indian Vedic scriptures written thousands of years ago include the mention of such scholars and disciples travelling from all around the world to gather in scholarly communities. Similarly, European universities reached their zenith because they were able to attract the best talent from every continent.
For decades now, America has enjoyed that coveted position in the world. People leave the comfort of their language and food and family to cast their lot with American universities, first as graduate students and then as professors. The fire of intellectual curiosity burns in their bellies. They have given America the edge that at one point in time Asia and Europe previously enjoyed.
Are we at risk of losing that preeminence? What would it take for these Olympian academics from other countries to pack their bags and move on in search of another place that provides that enabling environment? What might turn the tide?
Facilities? No, because many countries today have far better laboratories than any university in America can provide.
Money? No, because many countries can provide far more discretionary funding than we can.
In reality, it is primarily the guarantee of having similar-minded, similarly-dedicated people that keeps these exceptional scholars and researchers here in America. If any other nation becomes able to attract enough of these gifted and driven people – to provide a similar guarantee, as it were – the trend could reverse. These dedicated discoverers of knowledge will move on to wherever they find the best tools and teams to quench their thirst.
All research is not same. All researchers are not same. All discoveries are not same. So, you ask, what keeps me up at night? Thinking about how we can continue to nurture those who are so productively consumed by intellectual curiosity. As long as we have the best talent here, I am convinced we can find solutions to everything else. Holding on to that talent is crucial … and we better not doze off.