Chancellor calls for public universities to speak up for themselves
Effectively communicating the value of public universities is more critical than ever at a time of growing skepticism about higher education.
That was the message and the mission advanced by University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank as she delivered the 16th annual James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture at the Ohio Union Thursday.
“At this moment in time,” Blank said, “communicating our value and responding effectively to public criticism is an absolutely critical part of our job as higher education leaders.”
Blank said higher education is a target for critics who suggest it has become too expensive, fails to educate students effectively for the job market and is often poorly managed. While some of these points have a grain of truth behind the critique, she said, they don’t reflect the real importance of a college education.
“We are at a moment where the degrees we grant have never been more valuable to our graduates,” Blank said.
An economist by training, Blank became chancellor of Wisconsin’s flagship university in July 2013. She also served as deputy secretary and acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Barack Obama. She was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton.
From 1999 to 2008 she was dean and professor of public policy and economics in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
Blank said public skepticism is compounded by cuts to federal and state funding of higher education that often force colleges and universities to raise tuition. Universities, and particularly public universities, need to fight back, she said, while at the same time demonstrating fiscal diligence and responsibility to avoid criticism.
“Our responsibility as land-grant schools, as public universities, is to make sure any student who can get into our university has the ability to come and to afford a college education,” she said.
She said the role of land-grant universities remains central to a healthy economy, pointing out there are two things that will matter if the U.S. is to remain on the front edge of the global economy: a skilled workforce and groundbreaking research and innovation.
“Once you say those two things, there is only one institution in society that does them both and that is the big research institution,” she said.
In order for public universities to ward off criticism, Blank said they need to do a better job of public advocacy to show legislators and decision makers that universities are economic engines for states. One way to do that: Ensure that university outreach and engagement to the state is as strong as possible.
“We have to be present and we have to be involved everywhere in the state,” Blank said.
Finally, Blank said universities must communicate their message effectively – in order for the public to understand the good work universities are doing, they must speak for themselves and share that message broadly.
University Engagement Recognition Awards
Ohio State presented its annual University Engagement Recognition Awards before the Patterson Lecture. The awards honor faculty, staff, students and community partners for outstanding achievement in meaningful partnerships that produce engaged scholarship and community impact.
The College of Pharmacy’s Generation Rx program won the Distinguished Community Engagement Award. Generation Rx is a partnership with the Cardinal Health Foundation to teach safe medication practices. The program combines academic scholarship and community outreach through its free, educational resources and network of community-based educators and professionals to address prescription medication misuse.
The Distinguished International Engagement Award was awarded the South Africa Antibiotic Stewardship “Train-the-Trainer” mentoring program. The program works to reduce the use of antibiotics, improve the quality of patient care and increase safety for South African citizens who are threatened by antibiotic-resistant “superbug” infections.
A full list of award winners is available at the Office of Outreach and Engagement website.