Emory Report
April 18, 2005
Volume 58, Number 27


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April 18, 2005
Future holds a lot for Forum panelists

BY michael terrazas

Fourteen people did exactly what they were asked to do—and as promised by the title of the event at which they appeared—by looking toward the future not just of higher education but of the entire world, April 8 in the Schwartz Center’s Emerson Concert Hall, as Emory held the long-anticipated Futurist Forum, part of the University’s strategic planning process.

And though there were differences over degree, all of the “futurists” agreed that U.S. research universities 25 years from now will look very different—so different, perhaps, as to be unrecognizable from the institutions of today.

“There is an increasing sense,” said James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan and the first panelist to speak, “that we’ve entered a period of dramatic change in the nature of universities, similar to that we had a century-and-a-half ago following the Civil War, when universities and colleges changed in simply unimaginable ways.”

Though not all the panelists saw revolution just around the corner—“I’m not going to be apocalyptic about higher education,” said Catharine Stimpson, dean of New York University’s graduate school—all agreed that a convergence of global forces is affecting what for much of the last century has been the world’s premier system of postgraduate education.

Such forces, the panelists said, include the increasing globalization of trade, not just economic trade of goods, services and currency, but of ideas, cultures and individuals. Also the exponential growth of new technology (especially information and biomedical technology) can change how any institution operates from year to year, even day to day. Finally, they pointed to tectonic shifts in culture arising from the other changes, all of which already are manifesting themselves in the landscape of U.S. universities.

American culture itself, and the changes it is undergoing, is one of the contributing factors. Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, reported that more students will graduate this year with bachelor’s degrees in leisure and recreational studies than in mathematics, and that the percentage of graduates in any number of liberal arts fields is half what it was 50 years ago.

“I am behind no person in my respect for leisure, and yet it seems to me that this is bad news,” Weisbuch said, calling what is happening in the United States today an “culture boom and academic bust.” “[Despite the trends in academia] megabookstores are filled from morning until night. Cultural cable channels dealing with science and history and literature and the arts proliferate every month. [National Public Radio] has an audience triple what it was just 15 years ago.”

Several panelists warned that if American higher education does not evolve to meet the needs of the new century, it will be challenged and even overcome by universities and institutions around the globe, which already in the post-9/11 world are beginning to attract a greater share of international students who in a previous era may have come to the States to study.

“Do we still have a premier position?” asked James Jackson, Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Michigan. “In the future, we may be discussing a ‘brain drain’ from the United States.”

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said the United States already is engaged in a global competition for intellectual talent, one that it could choose to ignore at its own peril. “It’s not a question of law, it’s not a question of equity,” Stewart said. “It’s a question of national interest.”

Lee Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology, was on the side of those predicting sea change, not just in education but other industries such as health care. He said soon, perhaps within 10 years, all individuals will have their personal genomes mapped out, and they will carry handheld devices that use the latest in nanotechnology to take biological samples, relay the information to doctors and provide individualized feedback on appropriate health care.
Floyd Bloom, professor emeritus at Scripps Research Institute, didn’t anticipate change quite as quickly as Hood, but he agreed it is coming and said one particular area of health care research is critical. “Medical health starts with brain health; the brain is the commanding organ of the body,” Bloom said. “I cannot imagine a university of this scale without a significant
program in neuroscience.”
Bloom’s comments drew no disagreement from Huda Akil, Gardner C. Quarton Distinguished University Professor of Neuroscience in Psychiatry at Michigan, who said the National Institutes of Health spends too much taxpayer money on “‘me too’ science,” adding that Washington should direct medical research money funding more strategically, based on merit and potential rather than equity.
Following that line of thinking, Gail Wilensky (a former health care adviser to President George H.W. Bush) said U.S. health care should shift to a kind of pay-for-performance model; presently all Medicare reimbursements are equal across the board for all providers, regardless of quality of care.
Some of the morning’s most intellectually vibrant conversations occurred during the periodic discussion periods, when audience members, panelists and moderator Stephen Frazier of CNN Headline News exchanged views on everything from religion to the global AIDS challenge, to the contributions and shortcomings of modern mass media. Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University and former religion writer for The New York Times, said the media have helped transform how the world sees religion; the funeral for Pope John Paul II, held the same day as the Futurist Forum, became a world event unlike any papal funeral before it because of the pervasive influence of media.
“It’s important that universities help with discussion about religion because religion is inescapably public,” Niebuhr said. “Politicians have no problem these days appealing to religious constituencies with religious ideas. Religious values—expressed as religious values—directly influence the national debate over medical decisions regarding the end of human life.”
Beyond commenting on contempoary culture, the futurists specifically were asked to address how Emory’s proposed signature themes might allow the University to move forward into and even lead this brave new world of education. To a person, they all agreed that the themes—or rather what they represent, which is vigorous and (relatively) unfettered interdisciplinarity—will be critical.
“Long gone are the days of universities composed of individuals all pursuing their own self-interest,” said John Evans, CEO of Evans Telecommunications and co-founder of C-SPAN. “That simply will not work in the
21st century.”
Complex global problems like AIDS or poverty require interdisciplinary solutions. Lincoln Chen, director of Harvard’s Global Equity Initiative, likened AIDS to the Black Death of the 14th century, saying the disease is reducing life expectancy in Africa from the 70s to the 30s. Poverty, which Chen called the world’s greatest challenge, exacerbates the effects of such scourges. The point was brought home when he visited the devastation caused by the recent tsunami in southeast Asia.

“We were witnessing a silent tsunami,” Chen said. “It was the underlying poverty that increased vulnerability and hampered people’s capacity to respond.”

Another complex problem is race. Theodore Shaw, president and director-counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, discussed what he called a movement—ostensibly in the name of “color blindness”—to end programs in education that target minorities, especially in wake of the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding University of Michigan admission policies. Part of the problem, Shaw said, is the attitude that race is a problem that can be “solved.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever leave this issue behind completely,” Shaw said. “It’s one of the many struggles that we as human beings are saddled with because of our human condition—we tend to treat the ‘other’ differently. We need to be conscious of it and pass it on to our children, just as we are now with environmental issues. No one thinks we’ll be ‘environment-blind’ in 20 or 30 years.”

More so than AIDS or predictive health, addressing race and other social problems calls for the aid of social science, but these disciplines to some extent “have long way to go before they realize their public raison d’etre,” said David Featherman, director of the Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society at Michigan.

“There is a lot of creative ferment intellectually [in the social sciences]—a real explosion of capabilities and capacities,” Featherman said. “But in all this ferment, are we delivering on our public responsibility to address the problems we face beyond the academy? In my view, much of today’s university-based social science has lost interest in this quest and has grown obtuse, inward-looking and self-possessed.”

Challenging words, but then that’s what the futurists were brought to campus to deliver, not just in the morning session (the entirety of which is archived at www.admin.emory.edu/StrategicPlan/) but in the afternoon to the signature themes discussion groups. Each panelist sat in meetings of the groups and offered more focused input on the themes themselves.

Whatever lasting impact the futurists may have on Emory’s strategic planning process is still to be determined, but it seemed Emory had an impact on them; at the end-of-day wrapup meeting, several expressed an interest to know how the University planning process turns out and asked to be provided contact lists so they could stay in touch with their futurist colleagues.

“I feel invested in this now,” Evans said. “I want to know what happens.”