The New Student-Centered Urban Public Research University: The University as a Community of Scholars
September 15, 2011
J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor
I’d like to begin by welcoming Secretary of Education and board of trustees member Paul Reville, here on behalf of President Caret and the university system. I’d also like to welcome members of our board of trustees, including student trustee Bianca Baldassare, members of our board of visitors, elected officials, distinguished guests, students, staff, and faculty.
I’m also happy to welcome Dr. Adrian Haugabrook, president of the university’s alumni association and other members who have joined us this morning.
Provost Langley, Vice Chancellor O’Connor, Undergraduate Student President Travis Henderson, and Graduate Student Assembly President Robert Goodwin, thank you for your words this morning. Finally, I’d like to welcome our esteemed keynote speaker, Elizabeth Warren, former assistant to the President for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and a much-admired and honored professor at Harvard Law School—and probably the reason why this Convocation ceremony is at full capacity.
I can’t conclude my recognition of the special people here without acknowledging my beautiful wife Angela. Thank you so much for joining us this morning and being an unbelievable part of my life.
Each of you is an important part of this university community. But what does that really mean, to be part of the university community— particularly our special distinction as a student-centered urban public research university? If you have been with us for the past four Convocations since I became Chancellor, you know that I have shared with you, year by year, my sense of each of the individual elements of this phrase: “student-centered,” “urban,” “public,” and “research.”
This morning, I’ll explore the term “university.” Can it be that we who are the university, who live university life every day, can benefit from an exploration of what that signifies? I believe so.
I want to talk about us as a community of scholars, a community with a bond between teachers, staff, and students who engage in a process of co-discovery, and who have a mission that is crucial to human rights, the preservation of intellectual capital, and the betterment of the public sphere. Some of these characteristics, which I will explore, are shared globally among universities. But we at the University of Massachusetts Boston have unique assets that further our mission locally, nationally, and internationally.
Like other universities, we’ve had to endure another year of budget constraints. And yet we have witnessed groundbreaking at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. We have started construction on our new Integrated Sciences Complex. The foundation is near completion. And plans for our new General Academic Building are progressing apace.
But, as I will discuss, a university is about much more than place. It is not a static entity. A university grows and changes as its people grow and change. And we have some growth and change to celebrate today:
- Over the past academic year, we created a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion and welcomed Juan Nunez to guide this effort;
- We also launched the new Center for Community Democracy and Democratic Literacy, which Judith Kurland is heading;
- Our commitment to our urban mission is manifested in our recent research partnership with the national non-profit MENTOR Inc.
Working with them, we’ve established the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston—for which our own Professor of Psychology Jean Rhodes serves as research director. In fact, Professor Rhodes was so critical to this partnership that she also holds the MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership Endowed Chair.
- Our work in recognizing and eliminating disparities in cancer treatment and care has been rewarded with a second NIH grant, for $13.7 million over five years, to the UMass Boston–Dana- Farber/Harvard Cancer Center partnership. The collaborators responsible are too numerous to mention, but I thank them all;
- Our new Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy received an initial $2 million in funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center to build this important facility in our Venture Development Center;
- In these tough fiscal times, the Collins Center at the McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies has established itself as the go-to, good-government resource across the Commonwealth, in Rhode Island, and soon across the nation;
- And we have grown our academic offerings:
o At University College, a new global post-disaster recovery certificate program is available for students;
o At the College of Liberal Arts, a doctorate in neuroscience has been four years in the making;
o At the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, they’re proud of their new post-doc summer nursing program, one of only a handful in the country;
o And we are working to develop eight new PhD programs.
But if our university is about more than place, it is also about more than programs, as exciting as these programmatic developments are.
Obviously, our university is about its people.
Take, for example, our faculty:
- Eileen Stuart-Shor in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences has led her nursing students to Kenya three summers in a row to provide free health care to underserved men, women, and children, as part of the Kenya Heart and Sole, or Afya Njema, project. And when she gets home, she continues her mission to address disparities in health care through her Roxbury Heart and Sole program.
- In the Sociology Department, Stephanie Hartwell greeted her first-year applied sociology grad students with the announcement that they were going to spend their year working as pro bono organizational consultants for one of our community’s most important nonprofits: the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. Working together with Tina Chery and her staff, they identified areas for improvement, made recommendations, organized case files, and performed a great service for an amazing and understaffed group.
- I’d also like to offer an official university welcome to the 30 new faculty members who have joined us for the 2011–2012 academic year;
- I offer my congratulations to our 31 newly tenured professors;
- And I also need to congratulate Julie Nelson and Marlene Kim, both professors of economics, who were promoted to full professor, along with Rajini Srikanth, professor of English, associate provost for faculty affairs, and director of our Honors Program.
- Finally, our faculty has been working overtime in securing research dollars. Extramural research funding is up nearly 22 percent over the last three years, or an average increase of over 7 percent per year. And in fiscal year 2011, we set a university record by obtaining nearly $54 million in sponsored awards, an almost 8 percent increase above FY 2010.
Of course, university is more than its faculty—for what would the University of Massachusetts Boston be without our amazing, diverse, motivated, multifaceted, multitalented, multicultural, memorable, and marvelous students? They make us all look good—especially:
- Alyssa Kimball of Worcester, this year’s winner of the John W. Ryan Award, which we present annually to the junior with the highest grade point average;
- The 285 students enrolled in our Honors Program, which includes the largest class of incoming freshmen in the program’s history, 64. And those Honors Program students have an average GPA of 3.5;
- And as for the rest of our more than 16,000 students: they are from 136 countries; speak more than 90 languages. They are the most diverse student body in New England; in fact, more than 40 percent of our undergraduates are people of color;
- And to continue to attract such awesome students, we’ve increased our commitment to need-based financial aid by 123 percent since 2010 to a total of $14.5, with students receiving over $140 million in total aid for the 2011–2012 school year.
I need to pause for a moment and remind us all that a university is not a university without the behind-the-scenes work of its staff and administration. Our students and faculty depend on our staff’s hard work, inspiration, and commitment, which is why I’m so glad to have on that team:
- Lucia Mayerson-David, director of the Institute for Learning and Teaching, and
- David Lanchester, facilities
These two outstanding members of our staff were awarded the Chancellor’s Achievement Award for their exemplary service— congratulations to both of you.
- There’s one additional staff member whom I want to recognize today—someone who’s been watching my back since I came to this university: Louise Bostic.
- In our Procurement Department, Louise handles contracts. She makes sure our t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. And her dedication is representative of so many people who support this university and keep it running smoothly.
- She reminds me every day how fortunate we are to be a part of this University of Massachusetts Boston community.
- Thank you, Louise, for your contribution to the mission of our university.
I also want to recognize Provost Langley, Dean Steve Crosby, the implementation design team, and the many faculty, students, and staff who have worked over the past two years to develop our strategic plan.
Imagine, if you will, the year is 2025. At the University of Massachusetts Boston, a great public urban research university, we honor our origins as a teaching institution and our tradition of public service. At the same time, we have taken bold steps to grow in stature as a more sophisticated research university that plays a distinguished role on the global stage. We have become the university our founders destined us to be in their original statement of purpose: well equipped to provide opportunities truly “equal to the best.”
So begins the preamble to “Fulfilling the Promise: The Report of the University of Massachusetts Boston Strategic Planning Implementation Design Team.” It is against the background of this bold, strategic vision for our institution 15 years hence that we begin our reflection today on the idea of the “university.”
Now, I have mentioned the word “university” no fewer than a dozen times in the last ten or so minutes. But I wonder:
How many times a day do we use the term “university” without thinking about it? “I work at the university.” “The university published a study on that.” And the ever popular “Why can’t the university do something about parking?”
As I noted, “university” is about more than place or administrative structure, or even people.
We seem to take for granted some undefined concept of university even as universities themselves transform, diversify, and rise in importance throughout the world.
Today I want to outline the attributes associated with the rise of universities and what they mean for our efforts to grow and strengthen the University of Massachusetts Boston. I will also explore our broader shared responsibilities to ensure that our university is preserved and advanced, for today and for future generations.
The earliest universities were in China and India. Over 4,000 years ago, Shang-yang established a “higher school,” and about 1,000 years later the Imperial Central School was created in Beijing.
In the seventh century BC, Takshila University was organized in what was then India, and in 427 BC, Buddhist monks in Bihar, India, founded the distinguished institution called Nalanda University. Nalanda took its name from the Sanskrit word meaning “giver of knowledge.”
The modern research version of the university came out of Europe, with the University of Bologna in 1088 and the University of Berlin in 1810 taking the lead in shaping characteristics that have largely come to define the university. So what are these common features?
Whether you’re talking about ancient China, India, medieval Europe, or institutions of today, the idea of the university has never been confined to a single geographic area, or linguistic, religious, or political grouping. Nor has it meant just a giver of knowledge. Why? University has come to mean a community of scholars.
As a center of learning, it offers a sanctuary—to both teachers and students—a safe haven to scholars, from near and far, to test, share, and develop ideas.
The knowledge produced and transmitted in these communities is broad. It is not confined to particular individuals or disciplines, even in universities emphasizing certain professions.
We should note that the term “community” of scholars also implies collegiality—the attribute that requires that members of the university are facilitators of each other’s scholarship and teaching, each other’s pursuit of knowledge.
There are other institutions involved in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge—news media, technical schools, corporations, and “think tanks,” for example. At first glance, they may appear to be doing what universities do. However, they’re often just dealing with the gathering and transmittal of information. The thinking they do isn’t that of the university, which has a whole other dimension.
Even in our age of data overload, the task of a teacher and scholar is not simply to aggregate and deliver information. Or even just make a student into a sociologist, mathematician, philosopher, or historian. They also must seek to expose each student to certain modes of thinking— meaning, they teach the student to think scientifically, mathematically, philosophically, and historically. So the defining role of the university is to inculcate the methods of thinking through information, building on it, testing it, refuting it, and even replacing it. It’s not just what you know, but how you come to know it.
This requires hard work on the part of both teacher and student, often creating a spiritual bond between the two.
Ongoing encounters with a universe of modes of thinking are part of what we have come to call “common learning”—something to which all students should be exposed and in which, preferably, they should be immersed.
The common learning should produce four outcomes:
- a familiarity with the language of the various modes of thinking;
- an independence of mind;
- a moral understanding and refinement; and
- a capacity for aesthetic appreciation.
These four achievements have the ability to awaken profound powers that reside in human intellectual potential. They help shape a capacity for individual development, open pathways for experiencing the complexities of nature, and encourage pushing beyond conventional boundaries into uncharted territories. The university is limited only by its participants’ capacities to imagine what is not—and somehow bring it into being.
Allied to the area of common learning is that of the unity of teaching and research.
Prior to the nineteenth century, universities, with the notable exception of Nalanda, were largely defined by private scholars or research institutes that were separate from the teaching function. According to that narrow interpretation, those who taught did not necessarily do research or original thinking. And if, by chance, they did both teach and do research, they surely did not share their research findings with students.
The principle of unity of research and teaching, which we wholeheartedly embrace on this campus, requires that they be made inseparable, that the teacher/professor and student share in both. It’s from this principle, incidentally, that the modern seminar has evolved.
The idea that undergraduate students can also be scholars, contributing to original thinking, is not one that is generally shared—even today. Some basic knowledge and information do have to be imparted. But students should not be viewed simply as “empty vessels” waiting to be filled; rather, we should view them as potential co-creators of knowledge.
The co-discovery I’m suggesting here is the best means by which independence is inspired and achieved. Co-discovery is how students become actors rather than being acted upon. It is also how students come to regard themselves as junior scholars, having capabilities similar to those of professors. This reinforces the interdependence of professor and student, and augments the ever-expanding sphere of knowledge.
Besides the unity of teaching and research, the university is associated with another compound principle—that of the autonomy of the university and academic freedom. The two are intertwined.
Autonomy refers to the need of the university to govern itself, to operate outside government control, although the history of universities suggests they are always subject to some form of regulation.
Academic freedom means the right of members of the university community to resist any form of ideological conformity. To engage in speech and other forms of expression. To disagree. To tolerate dissents that go to the heart of fundamental beliefs and preconceptions. To appraise all things critically, and promote inquiry into all areas of human learning and experience.
Academic freedom is intended to allow unencumbered pursuit of scholarship and teaching, permitting research to move along paths recommended by the evidence, even if that evidence contradicts the most revered values of society.
Remember how Darwin’s theory of evolution violated fundamental Christian teaching and beliefs.
Academic freedom also permits what John Stuart Mill called the opportunity to exchange truth for error—an exchange which, in all cases, benefits individuals and societies. (Except, perhaps, for Texas Governor Rick Perry.)
And since the university is supposed to be the site of universal learning, its members should, in turn, enjoy “freedom of thought and conscience,” freedom of “opinion and expression,” which includes the right to “hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media … regardless of frontiers.”
What I just said is a direct quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which every organ of society—especially universities—should uphold as a sacred responsibility.
This is not an abstract discussion. Remember the Wisconsin Republican Party’s attempt last spring to get all of University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon’s emails—to see if he was involved in political activity. The university stood by him, decrying that egregious violation of academic freedom.
A university also has the primary responsibility to care for the “intellectual capital” that constitutes culture and civilization. This is its conservation function. This work is not just the passive storing of data. It entails continuing efforts to ensure the integrity of our collective cultural inheritance, especially the language and modes of thinking, mentioned earlier.
The conservation attribute also means:
- updating and correcting where there are flaws;
- reorganizing where there is disorder;
- refining to make more intelligible;
- and even amending where the knowledge proves incomplete.
It’s an unending process. Along with the unity of research and teaching, and the fostering of trans- and interdisciplinarity, it helps to define “university” and especially to distinguish ours.
So we have the university as a community of scholars and students, a repository of common learning, and a principal conservator of our common cultural heritage.
There are two other attributes I would like to address:
First, the university as a primary source of renewal and revitalization, and, second, the university as the leader in the construction, maintenance, and refiner of the public sphere.
We see renewal in its simplest form as annually our young graduates go into the labor force, in effect to seed the growth of our businesses, hospitals, police forces, teaching corps, studios, laboratories, and other institutions. Roughly 75 percent of University of Massachusetts Boston graduates stay here in Massachusetts to work, and are vital in helping Bay State companies renew their competitive advantage. Indeed, much of those companies’ research and training depends almost entirely on what takes place in their “local” university.
Universities also spur renewal through the turnover of faculty, as new tenure lines are developed, new curricula are offered, and as older faculty retire or reorient their professional lives.
But issues of economic well-being and “workforce development” are not —and should never be—the principal aim or expression of revitalization and renewal. The university is and should be concerned with much, much more.
The renewal function entails cultivating an environment where errors are routinely exposed; where the intellect can safely roam over ever-widening areas of speculation, verified and unverified claims; where human beings can expand the borders of knowledge; where professors and students can investigate the nature and meaning of texts and cultural developments.
This is an environment to enrich the imagination and, indeed, to provide novel possibilities for human fulfillment. In short, universities bring the wisdom of the ages, the universe of knowledge, to create our individual and collective future.
We, as a university, are no less than the creators of the future.
Finally, I turn to a vital, if sometimes overlooked, purpose, especially for public research universities. Wendell Berry captured some of this when he wrote:
universities, at least the public supported ones, are mandated to make or help to make human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.
It may not be explicit in our mission statement, but is it not a purpose of the university, our university, to foster and launch good human beings? In doing so, we see the university as a shaper of the public sphere.
This sphere is the space between the priorities of a society’s official governing authorities and the atom-ized concerns of families, workplaces, and individuals.
It’s the gap between state power and private interests. It’s the arena in which the needs and values of each are mediated.
This public sphere has expanded over time. It includes society’s organs of information and discourse: print and electronic media, meeting halls and coffeehouses, voluntary associations and political parties.
Regrettably, the reality of the public sphere concept doesn’t live up to its idealized description as the place for rational discussion and debate and a forum for critical inquiry on behalf of civil society. Not by a long shot.
At different times, in different societies, the public sphere has actually been closed to different groups—ethnic or racial minorities, women, the poor, the disabled, gays, and non-citizens. The greater problem today is the tone and willful ignorance of so many participants in the public sphere. Look at the mindless, rancorous, malevolent—indeed, toxic— debt ceiling debate. Our political discourse shows a sickening lack of civility, a hyperpartisan disdain for government, and a sneering contempt for public service and public servants.
At the same time, the public sphere has been experiencing some disturbing contractions. Even with an increase in media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia, there is a gobbling up of the small by the large, and a corporate consolidation of news and entertainment. Public opinion itself is often less the organic articulation and exchange of heartfelt views than a cynical manipulation of polls and information gathering. It’s used more for marketing purposes than to seek the consent of the governed.
Too often we shrink from commonly available and shared communication to self-ghettoization of news and information sources, and cultural choices. It’s easier to turn to that with which we agree. Conservatives go to Fox. Liberals turn to MSNBC. And never the twain shall meet, losing opportunities to learn from one another.
But the answer isn’t to move away fearfully from an informed clash of ideas to a lowest-common-denominator approach. To do so diminishes us.
Universities—especially public universities—have a crucial role in shaping the character of the public sphere. We must not shirk our responsibility to inculcate the values of local and global citizenship, including those of courage, inclusion, and respect for the environment.
Our own history professor Woodruff Smith, citing the importance of the university in the public sphere, has observed:
For some students, university studies were preparation for later engagement, sometimes as producers and analysts of ideas and most frequently as thoughtful readers and occasional discussants. For others it is the high-point of their involvement in serious conversation, seldom again to be approached in intensity—whether from lack of interest or because of scarcity of structures outside the university that continuously supported the public conversation.
In a real sense, much of what I have outlined today is captured in the emphasis that President Caret has brought to our system. Our commitment to shaping the public sphere is echoed in his call to produce an educated citizenry and to exercise concern for the social well-being of the universe. The concentration on producing original research speaks to his goal of world-class research leveraging the system. And the four outcomes of common learning, among other things, promote his profound concern for student success and narrating our story.
The university has the role of cultivating the habit of thinking. It assumes the critical responsibility of generating a respect for public service and “public-regardingness.” It ensures that those who pass through the halls and the classrooms represent the broadest diversity of humankind, ethnic, social, gender, national, racial, religious, linguistic, conceptual, experiential, and other aspects of our evolving global society. In short, universities not only shape and sustain the public sphere. They—and we—are also authors of democracy.
We don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be of the various democracy-oriented protests that shaped this year’s Arab Spring, but we do know that throughout history, whether we’re talking about 1848 or 1968, Prague, Mexico City, Selma, or Tiananmen Square, students—and their mentors—have been in the vanguard of movements to open up their societies and usher in democratic reforms.
Simply being active is not enough. As Professor Smith notes, more people must take an intelligent part in public discourse. But to do so they actually have to know something, not just parrot what they hear on talk radio. They must be able to formulate and articulate their ideas in a compelling way.
Our challenge is to foster among all our students thoughtful analysis and informed decision-making, which will make more likely positive action, enlightened and authentic public opinion, and a majority rule that respects opposing views and minority rights.
And so I say to you today, never underestimate the significance of what we do at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The meaning of “university” helps to express the fullest meaning of our lives. The university as:
- a community of co-discoverers,
- transmitters and creators of knowledge,
- transformers of how we think,
- conservators and challengers of cultural values,
- shapers of the public sphere, and
- liberators of human potential.
These are the roles with which we, as a university, are entrusted today.
We are charged with using all those attributes and creating a future for our institution, our people, our region, and our global neighbors.
We at the University of Massachusetts Boston are a student-centered, urban, public, research university.
We are the noblest of institutions.
We are engaged in the most challenging of purposes.
We are devoted to fulfilling the most sacred of missions.
I call on each of you to remember this each and every day and to lead the way for our campus, our community, our Commonwealth, and for the world.
Note: This is an edited version of Chancellor Motley’s remarks as prepared for delivery.