Frank Rhodes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Adaptation and Change in the American University; Conversation with Frank H.T. Rhodes, President Emeritus of Cornell University; by Harry Kreisler; 3/31/99.

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Future of the University

Looking at the university today, is a university education still a crucial means to the implementation of the American dream for the individual?

I think it is, because the American dream assumes the equality of opportunity. Although we're committed to a belief that all are created equal, we know in fact that they are not created with equal opportunities, even now in spite of all the progress we have made. And so in a world where the key driving force, the new economic currency, is knowledge and access to knowledge, that's going to become more important rather than less important. Knowledge is not going to replace all the other things that have been economically important, natural resources and transportation webs, climate, as you've just pointed out, population size and distribution. All those things are still important. But knowledge just breaks all the old categories. And now the industries that are ones with a future and the great profits are knowledge-based industries: communications, biotech materials. All those things are low employment but high knowledge content. And that's going to put a premium on nations and regions with outstanding research universities. Because it's those universities that create far more than 50% of the basic research, that are responsible for it. They create the knowledge. They apply that knowledge. They share it between their members. They test it through extension systems, they spread it throughout their own states and regions. That's going to be something that's a winning combination I think.

Do you feel that the university is threatened at all by the new information technologies, even as it is contributing to the development of so much of the technology?

Yes. Maybe "threatened" is a strong word, but I think the new information technology -- as you say developed by the universities themselves in many cases -- is both an opportunity (chiefly an opportunity), but it's also a threat if we insist that the only way for universities to operate is the old traditional pattern. The old traditional pattern that all of us grew up with and we feel very comfortable with is one which required a huge campus, with a massive library, very extensive facilities, not just for seminars and lectures and meetings and all the rest, but for the sciences and for technology. The new learning opportunities are going to involve access from anywhere on earth, literally. At any time of day. So the location is less important. Timing is much less important. The notion that you've got to have four years with two semesters, sixteen credit hours a semester, has gone. It will now be knowledge on demand, of a certain kind, picked literally on the basis of personal choice and convenience. And all the traditional patterns of the role of the professor, the method of teaching, the content of knowledge, the style of participation, all those things are undergoing modification. You yourself have a program which is demonstrating how effective the new technology can be, both in outreach and in inreach. But it really changes the culture of learning and it changes the culture of teaching. And most universities have not really aroused themselves to those new possibilities.

One of the things you mentioned in your lecture yesterday was the loss of monopoly power that universities had. Tell us a little about that because it also relates to this information revolution we're going through.

Yes. Universities are almost a millennium old, and they've existed since the University of Bologna was established by papal bull, a papal proclamation, licensed to provide teaching and certification of degrees. And that's been the pattern -- not always from a papal source -- but the authorization of the ability to teach and to grant degrees. The chartering of the ancient European universities and the accreditation of universities in this country, has really authenticated the right to give degrees. And that's been very jealously guarded. It's also been recognized that we should police ourselves in terms of the content of that and the standard of that. And so the accreditation is self accreditation from associations of universities that literally develop their own standards. But if you think about it, that privilege of granting degrees carries enormous responsibility. Admission to medical school, admission to law school, admission to almost every kind of professional practice and examination is based on the certification that universities provide. And that's about to disintegrate. That's about to disappear because the industry, if I can call it that, is becoming deregulated. And what we're going to see is all kinds of institutions, including for-profit institutions, now providing access to knowledge.

And university extensions are actually becoming more important in this regard, aren't they?

Yes. They've been the poor relation, typically, on a university campus. I think in the future, in fact in the present, we're seeing them become more important and becoming something of a model and a mentor for the more established traditional areas of the campus because they're used to the kind of outreach, they're comfortable with the tools, that the new information technology provides.

Are we in danger of losing the moral dimension that education on a university campus provides, especially a liberal arts college like Cornell, in this new technology age which delivers skill, training for competency, and so on?

I think there are challenges there and you may be right that we're in danger of losing it.

Not everybody believes that a liberal arts education is necessarily the path towards virtue. If you read John Henry Cardinal Newman he's very insistent that there's a huge difference between what he calls "knowledge" and what he calls "virtue," good behavior. I love that Will Rogers comment that a simple man may steal from a freight train, but give him a college degree and he'll steal the whole railroad. So there's a link, however perverse, between knowledge and behavior. But I agree with your comment. Over the years, what has been one of the fringe benefits of a traditional education is that life on the campus has encouraged students to think deeply and rigorously about ethical issues, about the great over-arching issues of life. And I think two or three things have encouraged that. One has been the humanities, which have been devoted to these great common questions of human experience and to a variety of methods of exploring them and grappling with them. Another has been the role of the faculty as mentors. We've all had professors whom we look up to as models, who've really been people who've influenced our own sense of fairness and justice and standards of behavior and standards of scholarship. And the campus community itself has shaped most of us, simply having the privilege of living in a society where people come from dozens of different backgrounds and nations and persuasions. And getting along together with them, seeking to live creatively and productively together. That's been a moral influence. Now all those three things are diluted in the new world of distance learning and information technology. And so, to that extent, it is a challenge to see how that's going to be replaced in the brave new world.

Throughout your lecture yesterday and implicit in what you're saying now is the need for universities to adapt, to be flexible with changing times. Let's talk a little about what changes are necessary. You've suggested that there will be a convergence between private and public universities. Presumably then our political leaders, our state governments, are going to have to rethink the role of education and the role of universities in where we're going.

I think that's right and I hope that's going to happen.

Most university systems are operating now on the basis of studies that were done twenty or thirty or forty years ago, including California (not quite forty but a long time ago, twenty-plus years as I recall it). And that's going to mean that our present operating arrangements are based largely on a system that has disappeared, on a set of assumptions that have now been modified in very important ways, on a population that has changed, and on a population trend that is very different from one that we knew to exist twenty years ago. That means that the kind of ad hoc planning that most states do for their public universities is not going to serve us well, and that what we need most (and this is much easier said than done) is an opportunity for each state to think about the role of higher education in its own life as a state, in the life of its people, in the economy of the state, in the relationship with other sources of learning and instruction, in relation to things as different as public health and environmental conservation and economic development and international trading. In all these ways the public universities have a major impact on the everyday life of their states. That's an investment that's recognized in the very existence of the universities, but it's an area that really needs, it cries out, for re-examination. For the kind of aspirations that our own futures involve in the state are also going to involve the future of the public universities. It would be wonderful to say that we should have a national debate on the same thing, but I think that's almost impossible to undertake and that the real unit for discussion is the state, or perhaps the region. It may be the Pacific region is one that's worth thinking about. I don't know if that debate is taking place in California, but it's one that clearly would provide benefits for the state and its people.

I think most of the time it tends to be bootlegged as part of other issues, such as Affirmative Action. The controversy is not generated, because there isn't a controversy yet,[so the opportunity doesn't arise] to sit down and talk about the role.

Well a perfect example is the tenth campus for the University of California system. I don't know what analysis went into that or what long-term thinking went into it, not only as to the role that the system as a whole should play, but of the particular and distinctive role of the tenth campus. But it would be a lost opportunity if some very serious analysis didn't precede decisions, even though the location is worked out, about the nature and the development of that particular campus. Because in many ways the pattern that emerges from California is the pattern that's going to be adopted by the rest of the country.

Interestingly enough, David Gardener participated in this series and we actually talked about that, and there was a lot of systematic planning with regard to the campus. But then a number of state crises emerged, including the budget crisis a few years back, which prevented any action on that. I would presume also that the campuses themselves have to begin to rethink their goals and values as we head into this new millennium.

I think the hardest thing for any president and for any campus is to state clearly, so that you and I could understand it as visitors from another place, what it is it's doing. What is its mission? What is the vision it has for itself? Where is it going in the next ten years? Now all of us, myself included, have assumed that you can just keep the machinery going and things will turn up, things will work out, things will develop. And that's true, they do. No one invented the universities in their present form, they kind of grew into it as opportunities came along. But unless we have some clear sense of where an institution wants to go we shall blunder hopelessly forward. I'm reminded of Yogi Berra saying, "when you come to a fork in the road, take it." And the opportunities are so great that universities are liable to do that unless there's some very careful thought, some serious reflection about the kind of future for Berkeley and UCLA and Cornell and all the other great institutions.

And the future presidents of these places may have to decide not to have certain programs, not to specialize in certain areas.

That's right. I think the day has gone when every university could do everything. I said yesterday that I think the twentieth century has been marked by every campus -- and we've got 3,800 of them -- attempting to mimic Harvard. Even the two-year places and the four-year places, all going through this Harvard-ization process. I think the future belongs to those campuses which are skilled in de-Harvardizing themselves away from any single model of comprehensive engagement into areas of importance to them, of significance to their region, and ones where they can make a difference.

Now you'll still need some basics on any campus. You need people who are literate and numerate and all the rest, and you need a certain core of disciplines for that to be possible. But not every campus should look like the one fifty miles away from it. There should be a strong encouragement to differentiation. And there should be a strong encouragement, in that sense, to partnership of different kinds. And that will not be easy to understand or to develop because there will be controversy that surrounds it. If we're not doing it, somebody else is and that will look as though we've given something away. If we have a partnership with industry, let's say, there will be speculation that we are giving something up by that, that we're losing an element of freedom. But we have to learn to live with this pattern of partnership in creative and manageable ways.

In your overview of the future of universities yesterday, in a very gentle and kindly manner you were handing out grades to the undergraduate and Ph.D. curriculum and you gave a less than perfect score. Comment on that. What sorts of changes or rethinking needs to happen in those two curriculums?

Well I gave a very good score, a kind of "A," or, in these times of inflated grades, maybe an "A+" for some things: for research, where I think universities have been preeminent -- they are literally the models for the rest of the world; for professional education, which has been outstanding in engineering and architecture, in agriculture and law, in medicine, in outreach, and you could go on and on.

I think that one of the great successes in the last 150 years is the extension program on the land grant pattern. I think in terms of undergraduate studies, the undergraduate experience, we've been much less successful on the research university campus. There's that old, cynical definition that a college becomes a university when the faculty cease to care about the students. And that has enough edge in it, enough truth in it, really, to be a warning to us. And the trouble is that we've grown so big -- with undergraduate enrollments of 20,000 on bigger campuses, 30,000 on some of the campuses -- that the kind of individual attention that an undergraduate enjoyed during earlier years is something that's increasingly infrequent. It's rare now for people to look back with a sense of nostalgia at two or three great professors who knew them by name.

When I was at Cornell occasionally a student that I'd got to know would ask me to give them a reference for graduate school or medical school, and I would always say, "I don't know you that well and although I'd be glad to do it, I really don't feel that I'm able to say very much about your intellectual readiness for this. Why don't you get a professor to do it." And very occasionally they'd say, "I don't know any professor as well as I know you." Now that was worrisome for people who'd invested $100,000 and four years of their life, or more, and still didn't feel they were sufficiently well known as individuals to have a professor write in support of their qualifications. And if that's bad at Cornell, it's even worse at a bigger campus with a lower faculty-to-student ratio. And I think that's been one of the casualties of the great success that we've had in research and scholarship and growth in numbers, that we've lost the kind of individual transaction that higher education represented. And we've got to recapture that.

And you're doing it wonderfully at Berkeley with the freshman seminar program. I was told just at lunch today that by next year, I think, every freshman will have the opportunity for a freshman seminar experience. That's terrific! And it comes from faculty volunteers who are willing to do this. That's a wonderful refutation of this cynical definition of a university as being too busy to care for its undergraduates.

And part of the problem also lies with the incoherence with regard to what to take, what should be the focus of study. As the world has gotten more and more complex, hasn't it really become much more confusing about which direction one should go in the courses one takes?

I think that's right. Two things have happened. One is that undergraduate education has become more and more professionalized, or preprofessionalized. The pre-med curriculum has had a terrible effect upon the undergraduate curriculum, even of people who are not themselves pre-meds, because it's narrowed it and quantified it and squeezed it into a scientific mold in an unhealthy way. And the other thing that's happened is that we have given up any agreement as faculties as to what an undergraduate education should provide. And so I think one of the challenges of the university is to recapture the undergraduate curriculum.

What we do is hand people a catalog an inch thick and say, here are 4,000 wonderful courses, just pick two in the humanities and two in the sciences and all the rest, and then major in something and we'll pat you on the head four years later and give you a diploma. Without any agreement, without even a debate amongst ourselves as to what the substance of that undergraduate experience should be. I think it's irresponsible if we continue to neglect that opportunity. I'd love to write a student bill of rights. I wouldn't presume to write it for other places, but I'd love the faculty to decide to write a student bill of rights so that students could expect certain things: to be guided sensitively by faculty members, to be challenged by high intellectual standards, to be examined, to be evaluated in ways that are balanced and coherent, to be given the opportunity for cooperative group studies, to be given an opportunity to participate in the great opportunities of campus life and public service. You could put a student bill of rights together that would do much to add to the richness of the undergraduate experience.

Let's talk a minute about the Ph.D. Yesterday you were citing figures of the attrition rates from a study by President Rubenstein; they were very high. Would you like to share any thoughts with us about the Ph.D. degree program and the kind of rethinking that's necessary?

That's one of the other incomplete grades that I'd give. I'm tempted to give a "B-" or something, but you know there's a phrase in the old Anglican prayer book that talks of the praise for, what they call, "time for amendment of life." And I think that's what the universities deserve an incomplete for. I think we have problems with the Ph.D. That's really the apex of the university's educational program. It's the high point of what we try to achieve in our students. And yet it's in serious disarray. It varies enormously, not just from institution to institution, but from college to college and department to department, even from faculty member to faculty member. And it's very clear that it depends on funds that are themselves undependable in that they vary from year to year. We lose fellowships here and lose grant support there, and so the students depend on a very unstable source of support. It's also clear that there is a huge difference between the disciplines in terms of time to degree. It takes much longer, on average, for a degree in the social sciences and humanities than it does for one in the sciences and technology, for example. And there are good reasons for that in some ways. It may be that in a humanities thesis you have to learn a new language for example. In international studies the same kind of thing, you need different kinds of skills. But there isn't much excuse for a degree to take 11 years in philosophy, let's say, as opposed to four years or five years in physics. What's interesting about that is, first of all, that the time to degree has increased over the years. It's about 10% longer now than it was fifteen years or so ago.

For all degrees?

For all degrees. It's especially true in the humanities and social studies. It's less true in engineering and the sciences. And the other thing is when you get incentives to finish, either in the form of a carrot or a stick if they don't finish, the time to degree goes down and people do complete it in time. By carrot I mean the kind of Mellon fellowship program which gives dissertation grants and helps people to concentrate on writing. And by stick I mean the kind of thing that Yale has done where it's limited the amount of time you can continue to be a TA or research assistant.

And the other thing is, as you mentioned, is the fatality rate. These are the best people we graduate. These are Phi Beta Kappa, they're 4.0 averages, they're people who are the leaders of their classes and yet, as you look at the attrition, 50% of those who enroll in Ph.D. programs, the best and the brightest, do not complete the degree. And you may say that that's no bad thing, it's very rigorous, it's much tougher than medical school which has only a 5% attrition or law school which is about the same. That's right, it's true. But it's still a shocking failure rate. Because it is a failure. It's a failure for someone to achieve a degree on which they'd set their purpose. I spoke to someone last night who was a Cornell alumnus who came to speak with me at the end of the lecture, and I asked him what he was doing. And he said he was working as a computer specialist on campus. I said: "That's very good, I'm glad to hear that. Did you do that as soon as you left Cornell?" He said: "No, no. I came and spent four years doing all the course work for a Ph.D. in X department (we'll call it). I completed it, did well, but I became totally disillusioned with what that involved and I just decided that I was going to do something else." Now I think the figure is 25% drop out during the first year, or at the end of it. Another 35% drop out before completing the course work. And of those who complete the course work, 25% more drop out without completing the dissertation. That's a huge wastage of talent and time. So I think we have work to do with the Ph.D.

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