The Purpose of Higher Education: To Create Prepared Minds
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The focus of higher education should be on creating prepared minds in their graduates, and government-sponsored research and development in higher education institutions is a great way to enrich the education of future engineers. Photo by Michigan School of Natural Resources.

The purpose of higher education in the United States has been a topic of debate for many years. We have a 200-year tradition of the liberal arts where colleges are focused in preparing individuals for productive contribution through character development. More recently there has been a demand that there be a greater focus on career development. It is in the resolution of this tension that we progress in improving the enterprise of higher education.

In 2006, the Assembly of the State of New York requested and received testimony on the role of New York State in commercializing research and the development of ensuing innovations. I had the opportunity to make a presentation where I made two observations and one recommendation for the work of the Assembly on appropriate policies to convert state sponsored university research into commercialized products and foster economic development in the State of New York.

First, it is my belief that the primary business of higher education is—and should be—the creation of prepared minds. I entirely agree with Dr. Derek Bok, President of Harvard University, that there is a danger of commercializing higher education when we ask colleges and universities to turn their attention to commercial development of their inventions. This commercialization has the potential to erode the central mission of creating prepared minds by distracting administration and faculty into pursuing commercial goals to the exclusion of the higher purpose. The pressure to succeed in creating products and viable businesses with the funds entrusted to the institution may cause (and in some cases has caused) erosion of trust by the general public and by industry and businesses, of the university as a neutral party that should be pursuing the higher goal of education rather than competing in business. The investment by government in higher education, including research labs and preparatory facilities, may result in the creation of new products and services, but will definitely result in the production of highly prepared workers needed by industry for their pursuit of commercializing innovation.

Take the example of my own career path as a case in point. As an immigrant child arriving at East Harlem from Latin America in 1961, poor but willing and able, I received a fantastic education in New York City. Starting at Stuyvesant High School, I proceeded to a five-year engineering program at City College, which was then totally free. I obtained my masters and PhD degrees in engineering from the same institution soon thereafter. I learned the craft of semiconductor device manufacturing for my doctoral work on very ancient lab equipment — not cutting-edge research but good enough to learn a skill and land a coveted job in a research lab at IBM. Much good work and many patents and invention disclosures followed. IBM benefited greatly from my free education but so did the state of New York. The chip making plant in East Fishkill and the mainframe manufacturing facilities in Poughkeepsie and Kingston flourished from my work and that of my colleagues. Economic development ensued. The investment by New York State and New York City (and by the US government in the form of the GI Bill) paid many handsome dividends.

The point here is that even when commercialization stems from state sponsored research, the additional benefit of creating well-prepared minds is an outcome that must be appreciated above all. More, it should be protected as well. By some counts today the US is producing some 70,000 engineers per year.  India and China are producing ten times that number each at least. We must bridge the gap by creating more prepared minds. Any state expenditure that helps us do that is welcomed and needed. Spending on research and development facilities in higher education, even if it did not produce a single commercializable product or start a single new business would, nevertheless, be money well spent.

That’s not to say that such commercializable products resulting from state-funded research & development are not desirable, on the contrary, they are. At Marist College, for example, where I was Dean of the School of Management, there were several state-supported projects for such development. New York State made investments in those projects, and that was money well spent. Still I contend that the opportunity such projects present to develop “ready to work” computer scientists and engineers is the principal benefit of such investments. Commercial products were a secondary but not necessary by-product. The main benefit of such funding in creating prepared minds should be recognized as central to supporting the mission of higher education.

A focus on the creation of prepared minds fits well with the trend in higher education of an ever-increasing number of adults seeking degrees. We can probably agree that adult students come with their character well developed and in need of a practical education.  That is not to say that adults cannot benefit from broadening their understanding by attending humanities classes. They can and should. But their immediate need increases the emphasis and urgency on focusing on preparing their minds for more productive roles.  Thus the preparation of the mind of these students takes center stage.  It becomes even more urgent in an economy where unemployment is high and everyone is seeking to improve their economic situation.

Furthermore, when commercializable products or ideas appear stemming from research work at university labs and research centers, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to generate income and create jobs. The nature of that work is, by and large, managerial. Specifically, that work is the creation of new business enterprises, whether as business startups or as a new business ventures within an existing business. That work also requires prepared minds but of a different type from science or engineering: it is entrepreneurial work. The preparation of entrepreneurial minds typically occurs within business schools. Developing skills in entrepreneurial thinking, on product development and on product commercialization are front and center in today’s business school curricula. Innovation — and the businesses derived them — is what will keep America and New York State competitive in the increasingly flat world of globalized business.

My recommendation to the committee was to consider that the primary mission of higher education is to create prepared minds. Any research and development dollars the state spends may yield benefits in new products and services but will definitely produce the well prepared minds needed by American industry and businesses. After graduation those prepared individuals will create and capitalize on innovations and go on to create new businesses and more jobs. Moreover, keep in mind that we must develop prepare minds in business as well as in science and engineering. It is prepared entrepreneurial minds that will convert the innovations created by engineers and scientists into economic prosperity.

With the support of government entities colleges and universities will develop new programs and even new schools to focus on developing these new mindsets. To keep America competitive business and industry needs many more of these prepared entrepreneurial minds than the handful we are graduating today. If aspiring students knew that the government was supportive of innovation and entrepreneurship they would not only come to study in our colleges and universities but would stay to develop new businesses and enrich us all with their talent and industry.

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References

Based on testimony given before the Assembly Task Force on University-Industry Cooperation, Legislative Commission On Science and Technology and Assembly Subcommittee on Manufacturing on The Role of New York State in Commercializing Research & Development Innovations.

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2 Responses to The Purpose of Higher Education: To Create Prepared Minds

  1. Quincy Bauer Reply

    2012/06/29 at 4:46 pm

    This is a really interesting idea… usually the argument is that focusing on research and development takes away from the university’s mission to develop students but people forget it’s the students who are doing the actual research and development.

    I guess the problem, though, is that this funding would go into developing programs aimed toward traditional-age students and graduate studies, not so much non-traditionals and students just cutting their teeth on a subject. How would you propose ensuring that there is a fair distribution of R&D learning opportunities across an entire institution?

  2. Andres Fortino Reply

    2012/07/03 at 2:21 pm

    Quincy:

    A fair and very valid concern. I think we delay engaging students in problem solving (R&D) until they are in graduate school and in some instance until they are engaged in PhD work. It does not have to be so, and we disadvantage ourselves by this exclusivity. What is exciting is recent developments where research is being down by undergraduates. That is a great trend in many colleges. Also there is a movement to engage students of all ages, even into K-12 in deep engineering problem solving. My friend Charles Camarda, NASA astronaut and Distinguished Scientist at NYU-Poly is now organizing problem solving summer camps at MIT and other institutions for high school students with great success.

    What has been your experience?

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