Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little

Speech: Chancellor delivers Patterson Lecture at Ohio State University

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture

The James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture honors former Ohio State University Board of Trustees member Jim Patterson and the cause to which he is most committed: a vibrant university fulfilling its land-grant mission in an ever-changing world. The lecture brings to campus annually a prominent figure to speak to the range of challenges facing land-grant institutions in the 21st century and beyond. The lecture challenges the university and community audience to continue to use their knowledge and resources and work together to solve world issues.

Vide of Chancellor Gray-Little's speech is available here.

Thank you! It is an honor to be here to deliver the James F. Patterson Lecture.

Let us take a moment to recognize Jim and Nancy Patterson for their support of this lecture, and for all of their efforts on behalf of The Ohio State University and higher education over the years. I know I can speak for chancellors and presidents across the country in saying that our universities owe much of our strength to supporters like Jim and Nancy, friends and alumni who believe deeply in the power and necessity of public universities. So again, thank you both.

Higher education really does change lives — not just because of the knowledge we gain, but also because it taps the curiosity, the generosity, and the will in all of us to be citizens of the world. Those of us who teach and research at universities have the privilege to pass along what we "know" and the responsibility to tune into others to learn who they are and what they know.

Today I want to speak about the role of public and land-grant universities in American higher education — mainly some of the challenges we face, but also some of the opportunities we have.

In particular, I want to spend some time discussing three main areas:

First, how the increasingly prevalent view that higher education is solely a private good results in decreased support for public universities.

Second, how funding challenges cause us to reflect on our fundamental purposes, reminding us that because education is part of our original mission, great teaching is critical to our commitment to the public.

And finally, I want to discuss the importance of research.

My recent reflections on public higher education in 21st century America have called to mind the origins of public universities at the end of the 18th century. Public universities have played a singular role in American society ever since the first ones were chartered in the late 1700s. Their founders understood America would only prosper if it had outstanding universities that could educate the next generation of leaders and spawn ideas to drive progress.

As a native North Carolinian, I have always been fond of the 1789 state statute that created the University of North Carolina. That statute read:

“Whereas in all well-regulated governments, it is the indispensable duty of every Legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education … And whereas, a university supported by permanent funds, and well endowed, would have the most direct tendency to answer the above purpose.”

This statute essentially defined higher education as a public good and charged the state’s leaders with ensuring the wellbeing of future generations. The state’s constitution even specified that higher education would be as near free as practicable.

Now, at that time, North Carolina was nowhere near meeting the promise of that 1789 statute. At the founding of public education in the United States, the vast majority of Americans were not able to access public higher education — nor many of the basic rights of full citizenship — because of gender, race, or class.

However, the ideal was there. The goal was set. And the expansion of rights in the ensuing decades represented a steady march toward validating those founding documents.

Fortunately, the sentiment of that statute was not limited to North Carolina and, in fact, was widely accepted throughout our young nation. We founded more public universities, many of which – like Ohio State – were spurred by the Morrill Act’s creation of land-grant institutions, which led to increasingly efficient agriculture and advances in engineering and manufacturing.

Eventually, after World War II, the American middle-class experienced a decades-long period of growth thanks to efforts like the GI Bill’s support for veterans and the National Defense Student Loan Program for students with financial need.

The proliferation of higher education institutions was based on the understanding that the participation of enlightened citizens is a hallmark of democracy, and that society needs engaged citizens who contribute to the vitality of their communities — citizens capable of “an honorable discharge of the social duties of life.” This understanding is why states subsidize the education of their residents. 

But for a number of political and societal reasons, public universities today face questions about our value, our priorities, how we are organized and how we are funded. Basically, some stakeholders are asking the question: “Is higher education still a public good?”

To me, the answer is unequivocally “YES!” Certainly, higher education has compelling benefits for an individual, but even some of these have public benefit. Individuals with college degrees make more money, but they also pay more taxes. Individuals with degrees are healthier and more mobile, less likely to commit crime, and more likely to contribute to their community — all private benefits that contribute to the public good.

All this said, during the past 20 years, state support for higher education has eroded, with attendant increases in cost for students. While most Americans still view higher education favorably, they are less willing to spend public money to support the universities that educate most of the nation’s students.

There is variability amid the overall trend of disinvestment. Many states cut funding for their public universities during the Great Recession. Recently, a handful of states have slowly begun to restore those cuts or increase funding. And in the middle are a large number of states that have either frozen support or continue to chip away at it. In Kansas, our state has consistently disinvested in higher education to the point that it challenges our ability to serve Kansans and society. And it’s not just in Kansas. Since 2008, public funding for higher education is down 56% in Arizona, 34% in Pennsylvania, and 40% in Louisiana. Certainly, some of these reductions reflect global economic challenges of the Great Recession — but they also reflect a longer-term trend.

Now … as we lament declining public support for higher education, we also must be honest and acknowledge legitimate criticisms of public universities and ways in which we can improve — in research, engagement, and teaching.

I want to focus for the moment on teaching, because education is the most fundamental of our missions, and it is a high priority for state legislators who make funding decisions.

Moreover, as I am among friends, I can say that public research universities struggle with how teaching should be valued.

Often we hire or promote faculty based largely on their publications and their ability to get grants. Certainly, we cannot lose sight of a research focus. However, our tremendous growth in research output in recent decades has not been matched with a similar emphasis on improved teaching. Our efforts to improve teaching need to be more intentional and visible.

In his investiture address, President Drake challenged this university to make Ohio State as highly regarded for teaching and learning as it is for research. At KU, we took note when Ohio State convened a faculty summit to explore ways to improve educational offerings and pedagogy, and again when you created the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

These efforts reflect the fact that today, there are new perspectives on teaching and learning — perspectives that are very different from those that have traditionally dominated higher education. These new perspectives have been driven by advances in technology and in cognitive science, and by institutions’ increased sense of responsibility to their students.

Teachers at KU have long been seen as caring and invested in the development of students. However, in recent years, we’ve had a renewed emphasis on teaching, thanks to our strategic planning effort. We are seeing changes now that long-time faculty members tell me could not have occurred 10 years ago.

There were many parts to this change:

First, we did a comprehensive revision of our general education curriculum for the first time in more than a quarter century. The curriculum, which is now required of all students, was streamlined and refocused on desired goals. For example — quantitative reasoning, communication skills, ethics, and social responsibility. It also focused on the metrics to assess whether students had achieved those goals. Numerous courses were re-designed so as to be vehicles for achieving the overall goals, as well as to convey knowledge in specific fields.

Next, we continue to change the way we teach. There is no longer a great deal of debate in the research literature that active teaching practices are superior to traditional methods – especially lectures – and result in higher course completion rates, higher exam scores, and fewer failures in science, math, and behavioral science fields.

Students who do well regardless of the teaching approach perform even better with active teaching methods. But for average and marginal students, learning greatly increases with active teaching. Thus, the biggest difference is for those students who often get lost in classes and leave with little usable knowledge.

I will paraphrase a very bold statement made by a group of researchers who have examined teaching effectiveness. These researchers wrote:

“If this were a drug study where a placebo – in this case, the “lecture” – was being compared with an active drug, we would stop the study because of the efficacy of active teaching, and it would seem unethical to withhold the benefits of active learning from anyone.”

I felt indicted when I read that because I am a product of lectures, many of which I enjoyed! And more important, as a faculty member, I was a purveyor of lectures.

Early in my teaching days, I did notice that some approaches that worked well for me as a student did not work as well for students in my classes. Moreover, I believe many faculty members come to this realization — that the way they organize information and learn may not be typical. 

Today, we have a better understanding of specific factors that underlie learning and how we need to change teaching to improve learning. For example, we know that one skill that differentiates our most successful students is the ability to create their own strategies and rubrics for learning.

The good news is that instructors can design courses that promote such skills.

We also know strategies that increase course structure, ensure that students prepare before class, and help them evaluate information are more effective.

Instructors need to make clear what the steps, skills and criteria will be — and clear about what a “fair” versus an “excellent” performance looks like.

When I have attended such classes at KU, I have been impressed by the amount of planning the teachers have done, and by the fact they were working actively during the class. This is not a passive transfer of knowledge!

Some methods allow faculty members to get up-to-the-minute feedback about how students are doing. For example, students can use clickers to convey their understanding — and the instructor can adjust what she or he is doing.

The “sage-on-the stage” model — in which faculty members hand their wisdom to students through a lecture — is clearly not the most effective way to teach. Effective teaching means facilitating learning, not just “telling” or “covering material.” In an important shift, the question being asked now is: “Has teaching occurred, if learning has not?”

Another common feature of this perspective is the formation of communities of teachers using new approaches. This enables collaboration, feedback and social support among instructors who are investing a great deal of time to improve teaching. At Kansas, we have an online gallery of more than 100 course portfolios created by faculty members. In each one, faculty might have a question such as, “How do you get students to participate?” In the portfolio, they share relevant strategies and how well those strategies work. Teachers all over the world can use these portfolios to address their own teaching questions or to enhance their courses.

One of KU’s major assets in redefining teaching is leadership — currently from a psychology faculty member, Andrea Greenhoot. She is director of our Center for Teaching Excellence and recently received a $2.5 million NSF grant to enhance the teaching of STEM courses for greater student success.

An emphasis on teaching and student success does not happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight. For faculty to invest time and effort to develop active teaching approaches, universities must show real support for teaching and the improvement of teaching. Ohio State’s Institute for Teaching and Learning is a terrific example of such a commitment.

Active teaching efforts are firmly grounded in research, especially advancements in cognitive science, demonstrating that research can enhance teaching. I am inspired to see faculty members embracing this evidence-based approach to teaching, contributing to greater student success and better fulfilling our commitment to the public.

Besides the fact that it leads to better learning, there is another reason to focus on great teaching. Most state university systems have set a goal of 60% or more of their population having a post-secondary degree. The goal in Ohio is 65 percent by 2025. And for context, only 43 percent of Ohioans currently hold either a two- or four-year degree or credential. Ohio’s 2025 goal – or Kansas’ 2020 goal of 60% – could be achieved most directly by increased success with the students whom we already admit.

Active-teaching tools should be considered as an approach to improving retention, and to increasing our graduation rates and the total number of students we graduate.

I applaud President Drake for emphasizing that top universities can excel in both research and teaching. In fact, I believe that’s the definition of a top university!

But education of students is not the only way universities serve the public good. Universities such as Ohio State are responsible for the bulk of research done in this country and are the original source of much of the rapid development of technology during the past quarter-century.

The best solutions are found through research.

You have seen we can improve our teaching through research.

The major issues of today — from the opioid epidemic in Maine, Ohio and Missouri and other states, to repairing the nation’s infrastructure, to improving our political discourse — all can be addressed with help from university-based research. 

But, our ability to progress in research – and in particular, scientific research – is at a critical juncture. Since the Second World War, the model of university research funding has been relatively straightforward. The federal government has been by far the largest supporter of research — which has led to new inventions and knowledge that have improved our world, created jobs, and ensured national security. University research has supported agriculture and protected the environment, driven cures, and put computers at our fingertips.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that research is also a very American endeavor … It’s about solving problems and getting the job done.

At Ohio State, for example, Buckeye researchers have perfected the Vitamin D supplement, developed vaccines, and made discoveries that led to the use of Freon in refrigeration and air-conditioning. And during that time, federal support of higher education made the American research university a model for the world.

But federal support for research has waned in recent years. In 2005, years of neglect and unstable funding pushed a National Academies commission to report that we were at a pivotal point and to recommend increased investments in research and innovation, and enhancement of STEM education from elementary to graduate levels. This report, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” was a wake-up call for policymakers and prompted new legislation.

But five years later, despite some progress, a follow-up study echoed many of same findings and showed the United States lost more ground relative to other countries.

The simple truth is: Prioritizing science means funding it. Despite its crucial role in driving economic growth and our quality of life, research in STEM fields accounts for only 4% of the federal budget. And that’s down from nearly 12% in 1965, during the height of the Space Race.

In Fiscal Year 2015, Ohio State totaled $478 million in federal R&D expenditures. But what that number will look like next year – or 10 years from now – will be heavily influenced by political decisions being made now.

Without adequate and predictable federal funding for research, our nation risks stagnation in the key areas of health, the economy, and security — and the loss of our status as a global leader in innovation.

In addition to concerns about a loss of funding generally, there are politically motivated bans on specific areas of research. Let’s start with climate change … At Ohio State, researchers from multiple departments are part of the OSU Climate Change Outreach Team with a shared goal to bring climate change research and resources to residents of Ohio and the Great Lakes region. Similarly, at KU, our faculty work through the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets to track the accelerating melting of Arctic ice sheets and the attendant rise in sea levels.

But this kind of research is now imperiled by lawmakers set on defunding, discrediting or disavowing climate change research altogether.

The same threats exist for gun policy research. Every year, more than 30,000 people die from gun violence in the United States, which is why we need the University of California-Davis Gun Violence Research Center to continue their work in this area. Yet, after the Charleston shootings, Congress renewed a ban on funding research on gun violence.

While it is understood that elected officials will make policy decisions, we should be concerned when universities are blocked from making research-based discoveries that are relevant to the policymaking process.

In addition to threats to research funding in general and targeted threats to specific areas of research, universities need to be watchful of policies that limit the free flow of students and scholars from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Earlier this year, we reacted to executive orders on immigration that affected international students and scholars. While the orders have been suspended by the courts, they have caused tremendous uncertainty about the future of immigration and could deter international scholars from studying or teaching in the United States.

This issue is certainly relevant to Ohio State, which has 6,000 international students from more than 100 countries, and scores of international researchers and scholars.

A university is a marketplace of ideas that relies on the unfettered exchange of information and opinion.

Any policy that unnecessarily restricts the free flow of students and scholars will negatively impact our university community — just as would a decline in research funding or a law prohibiting important areas of research.

Let me close with these thoughts:

It is fair to say we are operating in an unusual political environment. Whether this is an anomaly or a long-term shift to a new paradigm remains to be seen.

The debate taking place regarding the future of public research universities is most visible when it comes time for lawmakers to pass budgets at both the state and federal levels. Budgets are more than tables of numbers detailing revenues and expenses. Budgets reflect values and priorities.

The benefits research universities provide to our society — educated leaders, healthier communities, discoveries that change lives — have not waned. If anything, they’ve grown.

And so again, it comes down to the fundamental question:

What kind of society do we want for ourselves and our children? Will we continue to “consult the happiness of a rising generation and endeavor to fit them for an honorable discharge of the social duties of life,” as articulated by the authors of that 1789 North Carolina state statute?

For those of us who believe in public higher education, our charge must be:

To advocate tirelessly in support of the work we do — and not just with those in power, but with your friends and neighbors.

To push ourselves and our colleagues to step out of set instructional ways and explore new ways of teaching, even if it causes personal discomfort.

To defend freedom of inquiry.

To challenge those who see only a personal return on investment in a college education.

To celebrate research innovations not solely as costs, but as investments that ensure we remain at the forefront of discovery.

At the end of the day, higher education is about changing lives.

And our work – your work – is crucial, not just to our nation or state but to every individual who leaves our institutions transformed for the better.

Thank you again to the Pattersons for their support. Their commitment to higher education and to The Ohio State University is a model for the kind of support and advocacy we need.

I appreciate the opportunity to have been a part of this outstanding lecture series.

Let us continue to celebrate what we have in this great university and to be steadfast in protecting it so that it may continue its noble mission.

Thank you so much for inviting me.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times
Chancellor's Vision

The mission of the University of Kansas is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities, and making discoveries that change the world.

We will do that by raising the expectations we have for ourselves, the aspirations we have for our state, and the hopes we have for our world.

KU is in the midst of a comprehensive effort to ensure the university is ranked among the top tier of public international research universities.

Through Bold Aspirations, our strategic plan, we're changing the way we prepare students for success. We're fostering research and scholarship across all disciplines. And we're sharing the benefits of a flagship university with our state and world.

This effort is supported by Far Above: The Campaign for Kansas, as well as our initiative to reduce administrative costs, Changing for Excellence.