Advocating the public mission of research universities

Universities need to convince themselves of the high value of diverse talent and inclusivity, of democracy and the civic sense of togetherness and interdependence on which the knowledge economy depends, before they can sell themselves to a questioning public, says Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, a leading public research institution in the United States.

Cantor is recognised globally as an advocate for the public mission of universities as ‘anchor institutions’ that collaborate with partners from across the economy to fulfil the promise of higher education as an engine of innovation and social mobility.

She was speaking on a “Communicating the Academy” panel at the Inyathelo Ninth Leadership Retreat held in Stellenbosch, South Africa, from 19-20 October on the theme “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times – Positioning institutional advancement in times of challenge and change”. The retreat was held in partnership with America’s Kresge Foundation.

The Rutgers context

Newark is the East Coast state of New Jersey’s most populous city, a metropolitan region right across the river from New York. Rutgers is a diversified research university in a highly urbanised setting that “represents all the paradoxes of American society”, said Cantor.

“On the one hand there is systemic sequelae of poverty, racism, discrimination and disinvestment that has gone on for decades, while on the other hand there is enormous growth – US$2 billion of investment as we speak in downtown Newark – and opportunity. Lots of talented youth left on the sidelines of opportunity, is the context to remember about Newark.”

Newark is also where multiple Fortune 500 corporations have world headquarters, where there is a 350-year history of a resilient and organised population, enormous cultural vibrancy and richness, and lots of possibility – human capital, investment capital, cultural capital and social capital – to build on.

So what does it mean to be a public university in that context?

“For us, it means that making the case for institutional transformation is really about making the case for the public mission, the public relevance, the public potential – anchor institution potential as we call it – of an institution that can both generate equitable economic prosperity and growth, and leverage the diverse talent around us to build a more equitable future.”

But to do that, Cantor argued, great research universities have to transform themselves. “It isn’t just getting a message across about who we are; it is literally transforming who we are in order to be an engine of growth and opportunity.”

Three aspects of transformation

Cantor argued that there are three pillars to the kind of transformation needed, and three aspects therefore of the message.

The first is to transition “from an exclusion mindset about what universities are, a selective mindset, to an inclusive mindset”. A friend, Cantor said, had called this getting over the tyranny of meritocracy.

“American universities have been obsessed with narrow ways of defining talent and potential. Universities take an input that is already made, hope they do not mess it up, and then throw it out as output that we have so-called educated. I’m giving you the extreme version.

“We have to transition to what John Dewey called ‘cultivators of talent’. Education is about cultivating, not about taking something already made,” Cantor continued.

“The second step is that we actually have to believe that diversity leads to excellence; that inclusion is not just some side thing we do to prove that we are more legitimate than the public currently thinks we are, or to respond to public pressure. It is core to our mission of excellence.

“So we talk about high-impact scholarship," said Cantor. For instance, in an urban centre like Newark, how do you address a criminal justice system of mass incarceration without fully reaping the insights of a diverse group of talented leaders and citizens who grapple with that on the ground every day?

She referred to what complex systems theorist Scott E Page calls the ‘diversity bonus’. His work shows that in a variety of settings the output achieved from group problem-solving under uncertainty is greatly enhanced by the diversity of knowledge repertoires, experiences and perspectives that members of the team bring to the task.

“So first we have to transition to being inclusive institutions. Second, we have to tie that inclusivity to the core mission of the innovation engine that we are.”

And third, as Cantor and Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, argue in the first of the Our Compelling Interests series of books they are editing, is the need to understand the ways in which inclusivity, prosperity and the very strength of democracy are enhanced by diversity.

“When we put the talent of our people at the centre of what we are about, we create an institution that, in a self-fulfilling cycle, becomes legitimate in the eyes of the public.”

Communicating the academy

People, said Cantor, tend to think about communicating the academy in terms of how to message or brand “or almost trick or manipulate the public into thinking that universities and higher education are worthwhile and important”.

However, universities first need to convince themselves of the value of diversity and inclusivity, of democracy and dialogue and civic togetherness, before they can ‘sell’ this message convincingly.

“It is more about messaging towards ourselves. We have to buy back fully. And in doing that we are saying that we will become more inclusive of more talent, and that we will become more anchored in place – which does not mean we are parochial; it means we are more aware of the world around us, of who is around us, of who we are.

“When we produce high-impact scholarship that validates and authenticates the talent and the voices of the people of whom we are [made up], that resonates universally,” Cantor concluded.

“And fundamentally, what we then become is more responsible to the democracy that we are an engine of and a consequence of. So we become inclusive and anchored and therefore more relevant and more responsible. That’s fundamentally what messaging is about.”