The University Record, October 14, 1998

U needs to do better job of selling itself

By Jane R. Elgass

The University must go on the offensive and tell prospective students, their parents, legislators and Michigan citizens about the value of a great public research university and the special value an education at such an institution carries, Provost Nancy Cantor told LS&A faculty members at their meeting Oct. 5.

“We must articulate our mission with crisp, vivid case examples,” Cantor stated, citing challenges to “the very roots” of higher education such as the Boyer Commission Report on undergraduate education at research universities, a recently released General Accounting Office report on tuition increases, growing competition from other sectors for scarce state allocations and the lawsuits challenging the University’s undergraduate and Law School admissions policies.

Reflecting comments made at a Sept. 28 lecture on American values at the Graduate School, Cantor reiterated that it is a mistake to restrict the definition of a university to the traditional “ivory tower” concept.

Universities do more than create and transmit knowledge, she said. They are societal experiments that allow a certain sense of autonomy, that permit and encourage experimentation with forms of social relationships “that are hard to do outside our walls. Society allows us and we have a special privilege and responsibility to work out rules of interaction,” Cantor said.

While we are experimenting within our walls, however, we also are reaching out to the greater community through “permeable boundaries,” in partnerships with business and industry and K-12 programs and other activities. “We need to revitalize our sense of mission, our connectedness” beyond the campus, she noted.

Touching on state funding, Cantor noted that during its growth years, the U-M “has never been supported at anything like the Consumer Price Index (CPI),” which would simply mean “do as we did last year.” Support, rather, has been “well beyond [the CPI], closer to the pace of the growth of individual income.”

“We need to make the case that we do new things each year, that we stretch to provide something new. We need to show why we are worthy of this level of support, as the trend in recent years has not been at this level. We need to show that we have value that is returned to the state, but grounded here,” she stated.

Cantor noted that recently gained “efficiencies don’t result in discounts, they don’t lower tuition. The savings are reinvested in the academic mission. We need to learn how to discuss this, convey this to the public,” she said.

As a great research university, the U-M offers a superb undergraduate education, paralleled by few, Cantor noted. Interdisciplinary courses, theme semesters, opportunities for research by undergraduate students are several examples of activities that cannot be launched by many institutions. It takes the “scale” of a large research university with strong professional schools to make these opportunities available.

This does not mean that graduate students are left as “orphans,” Cantor noted. Rather, “we count on the contributions they make,” and faculty should “rise to the challenge of expanding opportunities for graduate students” as they are a critical part of the undergraduate education process.

Noting that there is a big gap between U-M accomplishments and public rhetoric over the past 10 years, Cantor called on faculty to “get out and talk to the media,” share with them the many “compelling” stories of achievements. “It really matters to get faculty and students in the papers,” she said.

She also urged her audience to take part in the November election, which will fill two seats on the Board of Regents. “The Regents are extremely important,” she said. “They have a direct influence on a variety of issues facing the University.”


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