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Fall 2003 Convocation Address

  • Date: 09/23/2003
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Last week, I shared with all of you an editorial by Stanley Fish that appeared in the September 18 edition of the New York Times. In his elegant simplicity, Dr. Fish -- who is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The University of Illinois at Chicago -- articulated issues stemming from the public perception of higher education today, issues that are both troubling and dangerous.

    As many of you know, I have become increasingly involved in a statewide policy discussion on higher education and the economy. Perhaps you have heard some of my speeches on these issues, or you may have seen some of my editorials over the last few years. Or you might have read the white paper that I circulated earlier this year that I wrote at the request of State Representative Jim Hughes.

    This is a discussion that is familiar and important to me -- because I understand the political necessity of taxpayers knowing how public higher education enables both personal and economic progress.
    I think that it is important for our stakeholders to know what kind of return they can expect . . . especially when this state has been disinvesting for somewhere between 20 and 40 years. And I am increasingly concerned about the emotion-laden and empty rhetoric about higher education costs that has become more and more prevalent, not only in our state but nationwide.

    Some of our Representatives in Washington think that they have this "crisis" solved! Congressman Howard McKeon (of California) and Congressman John Boehner (from Ohio) propose to simply cut federal aid to institutions whose tuition increases exceed the Consumer Price Index. I was taken aback by so ludicrous a suggestion, and I am dumbfounded by much of the language surrounding our own discussions here in Ohio.

    Two weeks ago, on September 10th, when I testified before a committee of the Governor's Commission on Higher Education and the Economy, I said,

    "....in much of the rhetoric leading up to this Commission, we heard many well-intentioned remarks such as: ‘increased collaborations,' ‘reduce duplication,' ‘do we really need to teach English in every college and university?' ( By the way, as to this last comment, shouldn't we then also ask if every city needs a high school . . . or every house a water supply, or an electrical connection?)

    And then I continued: "You see, today education is infrastructure." "It constitutes the human resources that are now just as essential for the wellbeing of our society as are the water, electricity and the other pieces of our physical infrastructure. And just like other forms of infrastructure, higher education is an investment that undergirds a productive economy.

    "My concern is that, in much of our rhetoric, we utter concepts that sound good without the accompanying rigor of knowing what we mean -- it reminds me of what Thomas Sowell calls ‘the search for cosmic justice.' The words sound good, yet when they are examined more closely, we see that the savings may be trivial, or that they may come with still other unintended consequences whose long-term costs may be far larger than the short-term savings."

    * * *

    But, I have another and more personal concern about the rhetoric that surrounds much of public higher education today, and it is this personal side of the argument that I want to focus on today.

    To cut to the quick, as it were, I suggest that we would be able to decide these issues if we could agree about the public versus the private gains provided by higher education. To some, a college education is only about private gain -- the benefits that accrue financially to the person that completes his or her degree. To others, a college education is also about public gain -- the economic benefits that accrue to our nation by a better-educated populace.

    Of course, both are correct -- individuals as well as our society gain. You see, the issue is not one of public costs, but of public gains resulting from an investment of public funds. It is an issue of viewing education as an investment instrument. . . of viewing the education of our citizens not as costs to be cut but as assets to be valued.

    However, there is still a greater purpose to education that we must keep in the forefront if we truly want to enable and inspire student success.

    Professor Marshall Gregory of Butler University described that purpose recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education1 . He wrote, in part,

    "....I have seen many students fail to get an education because they were fixated on the fiction that one particular major or another held the magical key to financial success for the rest of their lives.

    "Students' overriding concern should be how to develop as fully as possible their basic human birthright: their powers of imagination, aesthetic responsiveness, introspection, language, rationality, moral and ethical reasoning, physical capacities, and so on. Those are the powers that students must cultivate if they wish to strive for excellence. Moreover, those are the powers that higher education is especially suited to help students hone."

    * * *

    Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream, and dare, and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    And that is because universities are magical places; Places of discovery, places of self-discovery and places of transformation.

    My desire to join the community of scholars and pursue a career in academe was first kindled during my undergraduate years at Emory University. As you may know, Emory -- during the last 30 years -- has gone from being a small school to becoming an internationally recognized university. For example, it was invited into the prestigious Association of American Universities, and it recently recruited as its president my colleague Jim Wagner of Case Western Reserve University.

    Anyway, back in my days at Emory, there was a one-credit-hour course that every freshman was asked to take, entitled something like On Becoming an Educated Person. The course was primarily an introduction to the world of learning and, in some respects, it was an outline, a framework, or a shopping list of sorts. It was a wonderful way of telling me what was available in the great "library" of knowledge and how I might navigate not only through that "library," but through my four years in college.

    The perspective I gained from that course suggested that I should have some focus, but not so narrow a focus that I might lack in breadth. So, I took a lot of courses that most people today might simply choose to tolerate as requirements . . . and I found them tremendously stimulating.

    The one that holds a great place in my memory is a music appreciation course. Somehow, the music spoke to me, and I not only bought the best stereo I could afford, but also acquired as many Deutsche Grammophon recordings as I could find in those days. I just immersed myself in that course and in the music.

    As it happened, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra came on tour to America during that time, and it wasn't enough for me to hear them Atlanta. I got into my car and followed them to Spartanburg and to Charlotte and to other cities throughout the Southeast. I just went on the road with them, following them and their music for a full week.

    Music was among the many things that really spoke to me from the world of learning. But I enjoyed literature and art and many other subjects, although I was to major in psychology and minor in philosophy.

    Eventually, my interests moved more toward the sciences, but those early educational experiences have been very much a part of me to this day, and they have enabled me to appreciate how various disciplines are interrelated in what is today a highly complex and global technological society.

    So, you see, I speak from experience when I say that I think that higher education makes far more interesting human beings out of us and creates far more valuable citizens for our society.

    * * *

    Ironically, I learned more about the magic of universities not at a university, but at a place called Woods Hole . . . and some of you may remember that I shared that story at commencement more than two years ago2 .

    Named for the narrow passage on the Eastern Seaboard that separates Buzzard's Bay from Vineyard Sound, Woods Hole is situated at the southernmost tip of Cape Cod and serves as the gateway to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Islands. It is a charming Cape Cod village, lying just south of Falmouth. Hyannis Port, made famous by the Kennedys, is just to the east.

    Its obvious interest to visitors belies the importance of Woods Hole as a home for two major scientific institutions.

    One of these is WHOI, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, made famous by Bob Ballard and his discoveries of the sunken Titanic and the giant tubeworms that live along the hot vents of the deep ocean trenches.

    The other institution is the MBL, or Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, of lesser public renown, but possibly of greater cumulative scientific importance.

    For 125 summers, noted and aspiring biologists from around the world have gathered at the MBL to further our knowledge of life.

    More than 30 years ago, I first went to the MBL, awed just by the names on the buildings, - Loeb and Lillie, for example - which tell much of the history of modern biology.

    An aspiring neurobiologist, I went to see where much of the cutting edge research was being done and to meet those responsible for the exciting new dimensions of my chosen field. It was an experience I will never forget.

    I returned often, as many do, first to collaborate with others, and eventually to work with my own team in a laboratory of our own.

    I did this only for a few summers, before the pull of organizational leadership captured my energies. But it was enough time for Woods Hole to work its magic.

    At Woods Hole, I worked on scientific problems that were later the subject of published articles in scientific periodicals, such as the Journal of Physiology (London), the Journal of Neurophysiology, and Vision Research, little of which I remember today.

    What I do remember is more personal and, at the same time, more abstract - because it represents the people I met and their ideas.

    I won't bore you with the "Who's Who" list of modern biologists that assemble every summer at the MBL. Suffice it to say that they were decidedly inspiring to this then-young biologist.

    I took a lot in, those few summers at the MBL.

    Some of it calls me to the seashore, a legacy also of my childhood on the Pacific Ocean, and of a continued passion that is today expressed in sailing.

    Some of it calls me to this podium, as a means to share the collective wisdom that I experienced, and in the hope that I, too, might challenge and inspire you.

    One thing bears repeating, however, namely the sense of being in the presence of true scientific genius.

    It was George Wald whom I remember most clearly - a man with a remarkable presence, yet unassuming . . . self-assured, yet humble . . . ordinary, yet eccentrically and intelligently obvious.

    He had already won his 1967 Nobel Prize for his work on the chemistry of photopigments - those molecules that first absorb light in our eyes and thus allow us to see - and on the role of vitamin A in vision.

    We saw him on his daily walks, hands clasped behind his back, walking purposely, dressed in jeans and a simple cotton sleeveless shirt. Hardly the image of a Nobel prize winner!

    We sat with him over coffee, or chatted at the dock, as we did with many others.

    As the years passed, the MBL soon receded into the background of my thoughts, but what those experiences meant to me were recently brought sharply into focus when I again encountered George Wald - his words now echoed in a recent book.

    I quote:
    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be. 3"

    Listen to his words again, so that you can savor them, just as I have many times.

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity . . . that we can know, and that through us matter can know itself; that beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space, we can begin to understand; that organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."

    There, in a few short sentences, lies the magic of the MBL; the magic of universities.

    It lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the connectedness of life, in the sense that we can, and we must, advance our common future.

    * * *

    We are, first and foremost, a community of scholars.

    Yes, we must be accountable and responsive to our stakeholders . . . but our primary stakeholders are our students, and there is nothing more important than providing them with those magical moments. That is why most of us chose the academy as our lives' work.

    I am reminded of that often when I read one of the numerous articles predicting the demise of the traditional university, due to the seductive simplicity of getting vocational training online.

    Higher education is so much more than that!
    What we have to offer here is knowledge, opportunity, introspection, imagination, inspiration . . .
    What we have to offer here is interaction with passionate and accomplished scholars and support staff . . .
    What we have to offer here is magic . . .
    . . . because what we have to offer here is you!

    * * *

    Thank you for your service and dedication to our students, and best wishes in the year ahead.

    1 Chronicle of Higher Education, Point of View, Sept. 12, 2003.
    2 Proenza, L.M. May 12, 2001 Woods Hole and its Magic
    3 George Wald, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p 3

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