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New Combinations of Strengths and Agility—Assets, Alignments, and Attitudes

The world grant ideal and you. Share your thougths and experiences.

The World Grant Ideal advances the compelling responsibility to be both disruptive and incremental—to be responsive to the urgency of the “now” while simultaneously anticipating tomorrow’s problems.

To engage successfully in this century and beyond, a university aspiring toward the World Grant Ideal must build a unique combination of strengths and agility, combining its academic resources in ways that allow it to contribute value in an array of settings and circumstances. It must serve the current needs of existing constituencies while simultaneously casting an attentive eye to developments that will require new solutions to emerging, often unforeseen, societal needs. The future must be continually present in its sight lines.

In his classic study, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen outlines a pattern in which leading for-profit firms have ultimately failed because they focused too exclusively on current demand for existing products while overlooking the impact of an emerging, “disruptive technology” on the long-range market. (The advances leading to the development of ever-smaller computer disk drives provide an example; each successive wave of advancement to a smaller disk size ultimately caused firms heavily committed to the earlier, larger sizes to fail.)10

In the World Grant Ideal, the analogy to disruptive technology illustrates a greatly expanded frame of reference that introduces new global challenges and calls on an institution to align its capacities in different ways. Without abandoning their commitment to those they currently serve, universities pursuing the World Grant Ideal must be capable of reframing their approaches to knowledge creation, use, and dissemination as changes occur in the environment and as demarcations between nations, cultures, and fields of study become increasingly blurred. Propelling the World Grant Ideal is a responsibility to be both disruptive and incremental—to be responsive to the urgency of the “now” while simultaneously anticipating tomorrow’s problems. Pursuit of the disruptive and the incremental recognizes the value of engaging in research for which there is not an already-known purpose, an understanding unique to universities and many of the contributions they have made to significant—often serendipitous—advances.

Just as the human brain creates new linkages and patterns of interaction among its cells in forming new knowledge, a complex, research-intensive university must create new pathways within its own capabilities not only to meet but also to anticipate emerging societal needs in varied domains.

An institution in this mode must conceive of its individual strengths as a dynamic whole, a set of attributes capable of being reformulated expeditiously, with a high degree of spirit and resolve, to address emerging societal needs. Just as the human brain creates new linkages and patterns of interaction among its cells in forming new knowledge, a complex, research-intensive university must create new pathways within its own capabilities not only to meet but also to anticipate emerging societal needs in varied domains.

I believe that the unique combination of strength and agility characteristic of any university aspiring to the twenty-first-century World Grant Ideal belongs to one of three major kinds: assets, alignments, and attitudes.

Assets center on institutional capacities that allow a research-intensive university with land-grant values to address societal challenges. A university that pursues the World Grant Ideal should possess each of these assets to some degree:

Assets center on institutional capacities that allow a research-intensive university with land-grant values to address societal challenges.

  • Strength in research, scholarly, and creative activity. It must be a producer and cocreator of knowledge and endeavors at the frontiers of creativity, innovation, and discovery; one that attracts distinguished faculty from throughout the nation and the world and has a strong track record of success in the competition for external research funding.
  • Breadth of academic disciplines. It must be an institution that offers a full array of highly regarded academic programs, ranging from the applied and professional fields to the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that constitute the traditional liberal arts disciplines.
  • Comprehensive international reach and engagement. It must be a world-class, research-intensive university that engages directly with people, communities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and governments throughout the nation and the world.

Alignments make possible new combinations of knowledge and new approaches to solving problems, drawing on and integrating data and methods from multiple fields of study.

Alignments create new value and make possible new combinations of knowledge and new approaches to solving problems, drawing on and integrating data and methods from multiple fields of study:

  • Lowered and permeable boundaries between disciplines and organizational units. A university that pursues the World Grant Ideal must be one that builds alliances with public and private partners as well as other higher education institutions across academic disciplines, regions, nations, and cultures to solve problems requiring the creative synthesis of various fields of study.
  • Focus on new and evolving societal needs. It must take account of its essential capacities and its collective direction, being attentive to external changes that indicate where its strengths and expertise should focus and how best to engage those strengths, with whom, and for what outcomes.
  • Connection between local and global issues. It must conceive of the societal needs it addresses in a state or regional context as integrally related to issues and perspectives in national and international settings; it must be an institution that does not make absolute delineations between domestic and international challenges in its own organization and approach to world problems but, instead, regards these two domains as expressions of challenges facing all nations and cultures.
  • Partnerships at home and abroad. A university in this mode must be capable of building and sustaining effective working relationships and establishing a presence in other parts of the world through arrangements that confer mutual benefit and foster heightened understanding and goodwill between nations and cultures.

Attitudes grounded in a can-do spirit of hope motivate and focus energies on improving the individual and collective well-being of society—locally and throughout the world.

Attitudes grounded in a can-do spirit of hope motivate and focus energies on improving the individual and collective well-being of society—locally and throughout the world:

  • Commitment to make world-class programs, cutting-edge knowledge, and faculty available to interested learners regardless of economic circumstances. Universities that pursue the World Grant Ideal must combine the strengths of a research-intensive university with a commitment to educational access, opportunity, and success for all students.
  • Commitment to global understanding. It must commit itself to instilling global competence and understanding through, for example, study abroad, language learning, two-way intercultural engagement, knowledge of world histories, and comparative studies.
  • Commitment to fostering inclusiveness. It must seek out and celebrate inclusiveness within and across nations; work to attract a faculty, student body, and staff from a broad array of cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds; and respect cultural differences in its interactions with constituencies in the United States and throughout the world.
  • Commitment to mutual empowerment through engagement, outreach, and service. A university in this mode must directly engage with and for society by bringing expert knowledge to bear on local problems in both rural and urban settings, domestically and internationally, and by engaging directly in programs and research that mutually empower its partners to achieve their own goals and realize their full potential.
  • Commitment to modeling democratic values. A university that pursues the World Grant Ideal models itself on the spirit and strengths of democratic values: committed to freedom of thought and peaceful expression, to open debate in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, to inclusion of people of all backgrounds and circumstances, to respect for different points of view, and to openness in the processes of decision making. It must be an institution that embodies a view of public education as an instrument and reflection of the spirit of democratic values and makes cutting-edge knowledge accessible to people from a broad spectrum of economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Such a university helps instill a capacity for independent thought, critical analysis, the compelling expression of ideas, and sound ethical judgment. Such a university makes its discoveries and knowledge openly available. Transparency in what we do and how we do it and open access to our discoveries reflect and reinforce democratic values.
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