The following interview is with Theodora Kalikow, president of the University of Southern Maine. Kalikow is well-versed in the challenges that modern-day state colleges and universities are facing, having spoken on the topic at a recent discussion panel hosted by USM. In this discussion, Kalikow shares her thoughts on what she thinks the future holds for state universities, and for institutions across the higher education spectrum. She also explains what leaders at state institutions will have to do in order to ensure their colleges and universities continue to thrive in a period of declining state appropriations.
1. State universities receive funding from their respective state governments; how does this influence the responsibilities of these institutions?
Well, I think that since we actually get money — sometimes not very much, depending on the state — but since we do get state support, we have an obligation to … make education available to the actual citizens of the state and to work on economic-civic-creative activities to benefit the state that we’re located in.
2. When compared to private institutions or even land-grant funded institutions, what differentiates state universities?
Often, we’re the biggest employer in our region. Some of us are pretty big, some of us are pretty small — but in really small towns — and if we weren’t there, the place would probably shrivel up and die. That’s one of the important things. It’s really true. Little Podunk State University may be in Podunk. Podunk may have one big employer and that’s the university; or maybe two and that’s the school system and the university, or maybe three; add the hospital and that may be it.
And, so, we are an important economic development engine. We also, probably, are a center of civic engagement and cultural activities for our regions. And those activities are really important in addition to the education we provide for residents of the state and region.
3. Looking into the future, what do you think the role of state universities will be in 10 years? How will it be different from today?
It’s going to be different because students are going to be different. We’re going to have many more, I hope, adult degree completers or people who have come to higher education late, who decide it’s time to go.
We’re going to have more ways into higher education. I think that the 20th century model is broken and probably about to be discarded. And, so, we’re going to take people where they are, with the educations that they have attained up to that point — whether it’s formal higher education or whether it’s portfolios that they can make for learning that they have amassed in other ways — and give them credentials and give them some a path towards degree completion and a path towards enhanced roles as members of the community, whether it’s in civic activism or creative activity or in employment.
4. When comparing state universities of the future with other institutions, what will be the major differentiating factors between state institutions and their competitions in the private sector in 10 years?
… I think the state universities are going to be focused on civic development, whether that’s economic development or development of citizens, or taking the adult learners who want to complete degrees, or even the traditional-aged students, and giving them a path that’s not that expensive and that is full of active learning opportunities. I think that’s the real future for higher education in general. But it might be publics, it might be privates.
Some of us may be out of business in 10 years. And some of us, I hope, will be healthy, including whatever one I’m leading at the time.
But I don’t really know the answer to the question of how there’s going to be differentiation. I look at higher education and I see everybody moving in the same direction: towards active learning and engagement, whether it’s an undergraduate or graduate research … because, after all, the whole higher education landscape, and the whole general landscape, is changing because right now everybody is walking around with the Libraries of Congress in their pocket. Everybody has information up the “wa-zoo.”
You can find out anything you want to know in about three clicks, or maybe five. It’s right there in your pocket. So the traditional thing that higher education had to do, which was knowledge transfer — that’s going to go away. We’re going to be in the knowledge curating business and we’re going to be in the faculty networking and we’re going to be in the active learning for students and putting them out in the community to learn while they’re doing. To learn before they have total expert knowledge. That’s where we’re going to go.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the role of state universities in 10 years’ time when looking at the rest of the industry?
I hope we’ll be the leaders. In some sense we’re the best positioned in terms of our geography, whether it’s virtual geography or actual geography.
Whether we have the will to do it is a whole other question.
6. Do you think that the “will to do it” is something that will come out of state legislators or will that be something that the universities themselves will need to capture and run with?
Yes, the universities have to capture and run with it.
State legislatures are going to be in the allocation of money business. They’re going to be in the howling business, about why we can’t get whatever we want today. They’re going to be in the punitive business. They’re not going to be in the innovation business. We have to be in the innovation business and I don’t know how fast we can do that, but I think that we will be forced by circumstances to be that.
Private institutions who don’t get this are going to go out of business. We may hang on a little bit longer, but we may be in a weakened condition, unless we innovate and unless we reach out to the populations that are really there — like the adult learners and the continuing educators and those folks — as well as our traditional markets.
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