American public universities have played a special role ever since the first were chartered in the late 1700s. The founders understood that the United States would prosper only if it had strong universities that could educate the next generation of leaders and create the inventions and ideas that drive progress.
Over the years, more public universities were founded, many spurred by the Morrill Act, which created land-grants, service-oriented public universities. Today, more than 200 hundred years after the first public universities were founded and nearly a century-and-a-half after the Morrill Act, our public higher education system is the envy of the world. Our public institutions have provided unrivaled access to higher education and fueled discoveries that have saved lives and improved our world.
We are the inheritors of a noble tradition of public higher education. We uphold the ideals of public universities when we strive to ensure college remains accessible to all who are ready to attend, when our service creates more vibrant communities, and when our innovations improve lives.
As we approach the end of the semester at the University of Kansas, my thoughts turn to the Jayhawks who will soon walk down the Hill at Commencement and begin the next chapter of their lives. Many – perhaps most – of these soon-to-be graduates initially will be focused on joining the workforce and pursuing a career. That is wonderful and appropriate, both for the graduates and our economy, which increasingly relies on university-educated leaders. Certainly, public universities must continue to be responsive to workforce needs and provide talented workers who can drive economic growth.
But as our graduates anticipate the walk down the Hill and entry to the workforce, I want them to remember our broader hope for them, and our broader mission as a public university. Our goal is not just to create workers. Our goal is to educate leaders so they can be active citizens, compassionate neighbors, and well-rounded human beings. We want Jayhawks to leave Mount Oread with the impulse to improve their communities. We want Jayhawks to have the courage to pursue a meaningful existence, however they define it. In short, we want our graduates not only to make a good living, but to make a good life.
For these reasons, the University of Kansas must remain true to its primary mission of educating leaders through a comprehensive education that combines a broad-based classroom curriculum and other rich experiences. Yes, we want our students to develop expertise in a specific field so they can have successful careers and meet workforce needs. But we also want them to leave KU with a global perspective, a sense of obligation to the world around them, and the spirit to do something bigger than themselves.
Higher education changed my life — as a student, a university researcher and administrator, and as a person. And it has been immeasurably rewarding to be part of the University of Kansas knowing our work is transforming the lives of our students and the citizens we serve.
Public higher education today faces challenges. We know this. Looking ahead, my call to you is to remember our mission as a public research university, defend our core values, and continue the noble tradition of higher education we inherited.
Best wishes as you wrap up your classes and projects for the semester. I look forward to seeing many of you over the coming weeks, especially at Commencement on May 14.