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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Lessons Learned

Because of your great successes at Cornell you have a real sense of the problems and opportunities confronting the university in the future. Do you think universities in general will be able to do all this rethinking, adjust to pressures from their external environment, and still retain their remarkable identity and integrity?

I hope so. I think we must all hope so. Not all will survive. I think some at the bottom end of the group are going to face very tough competition from distance learning, from for-profit institutions (the University of Phoenix and other places which treat knowledge as a commodity). But I think the great institutions, and I mean by that not just the great universities but the great liberal arts colleges, are going to emerge stronger than ever. And I think the dependence of the nation on them, the need for their services, is going to be greater than ever. I don't pretend that's going to be easy. I think there are hard times ahead and hard rethinking that's going to be needed. And there'll be a premium on bold leadership and thoughtful analysis, and faculty flexibility.

We as faculty members are not the most flexible people in the world. A faculty member has been defined as someone who thinks otherwise, and that nothing on some campuses should ever be done for the first time. I think it's going to be difficult to retain the kind of rigidities that we've sometimes cherished in the past. But if we're flexible and creative, and if we take seriously the notion that our scholarship is a public trust and the teaching we provide is a moral vocation and not just the dispensing of information, then I think we shall see that the service we provide is going to continue to be important and to be valued.

One final question. In addition to helping students with the first draft of their bill of rights, which you were discussing earlier, what advice would you have for students [who want] to get the most out of their education?

Education, like life, is strictly a do-it-yourself job. It's not a spectator sport. There's an old description which isn't so frequently used now, that John Smith or Mary Kim "received" his or her education at Stanford or Berkeley. The notion that you "receive" it passively is just a total falsehood. Education is something you create for yourself. You can no more receive it than you can receive a career, you have to create it for yourself. And the student who prospers will be one who is endlessly inquisitive, endlessly curious, endlessly persistent in pursuing faculty members, in mining information from every source, from reaching out to the richness of experience that campus life provides. This generation seems to me a generation that's very capable and wonderfully effective in doing that.

Professor Rhodes, President Rhodes, thank you very much for joining us today for this conversation about universities in the future. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California

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