Thinking beyond A-B-C

Thinking beyond A-B-C

I have long bemoaned the iron rule of alphabetical order.  The first three letters of the English alphabet are A-B-C and by virtue of being first, these letters have become both shorthand and a cliché for what people need to know and to do.  After all, everyone needs to learn their “ABCs” and we are always seeking to go from “point A to point B.”  For the purpose of this essay, I am going to throw off this alphabet tyranny and focus instead on those unsung letters D-E-F to show how universities and the private sector should collaborate during the next 20 years. (Hint: it involves an epic poem, Sir Isaac Newton, and tomatoes.)


We do not need predictions or forecasts to tell us that we are in the midst of a technological revolution. The evidence is all around us, every moment.  At the core of this revolution is data – our personal data, algorithms designed to analyze and manage data, and the abuse of data ranging from violations of individual privacy to hacking of national elections. Humanity faces a future that will be shaped in many ways by scarcity but data poses the opposite challenge: how do we handle a superabundance? The data revolution is moving so rapidly that it threatens to overwhelm us. By 2040, if not much sooner, I fear we will be like Coleridge’s thirsty mariner, who had “water, water everywhere/nor any drop to drink,” but in our case we will have “data, data everywhere/nor any thought to think”! We need to take the time to think about data, how it is collected, and how it is used. The private sector, from social media companies to health care providers, is sprinting forward in their collection and usage of data at a speed that is far outpacing consideration of the ethical, political, and social implications.

“This is where universities can be a partner with industry, bringing the breadth and depth of our intellectual resources in anthropology, ethics, history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology to bear on the big questions that “big data” generates”

Some of this work is already underway but we need much more of it, and it needs to be coordinated and synthesized so the private sector – and its regulators and watchdogs – can make sense of it.


Based on current goals, by 2040 Japan will be closing its last nuclear power plant and the United Kingdom will be banning the use of new gasoline and diesel vehicles. These seismic shifts in global energy production and consumption signal another area in which universities and the private sector must collaborate. Since Newton at Cambridge in the 1600s, universities have played an integral role in the basic and applied sciences of energy. This research, which has featured close collaboration between academe and industry over the last century, must continue. Between now and 2040, academe and industry should work more closely together on the social sciences of energy—economics, law, and public policy.  Thanks to the physical sciences, we have a good sense of what we can do in terms of energy. In the next 20 years, we need to ramp up our efforts to determine what we should do in terms of energy. I think an expanded partnership between universities and industry is an ideal way to accomplish this.


If current predictions prove to be accurate, we will live in a very different world by 2040 as a result of climate change. In addition to sea level rise and the reshaping of coastlines, the impact on food production and consumption will be dramatic. A significant portion of the land we currently use to grow food will no longer be arable, so both the quantity and variety of the food available will presumably decrease. As with data and energy, these forecasted changes provide another area in which universities and the private sector must collaborate.  Universities, especially my beloved land-grant universities through their Cooperative Extension Services, have been essential to transforming agriculture in the United States. One of my favorite land-grant stories is Mannon Gallegly and “the people’s tomato.” Gallegly, a plant pathologist, came to West Virginia University (WVU) in 1949 as an assistant professor. His first research project was to find a way to prevent the dreaded tomato blight that was wiping out so many tomato crops across the country. He worked long and hard and by 1963, Gallegly had developed a tomato that was resistant to blight. Today, Gallegly’s tomato seeds are used by farmers around the globe. For more than 50 years, Mannon Gallegly conducted research, taught students, and shared with farmers – and that is why I consider him to be the personification of the land-grant spirit. By 2040, I hope that a collaboration between academe and industry will spread the benefits of the Cooperative Extension model to every corner of the planet.  Many land-grant universities do not have the financial resources to extend their reach around the world, and yet these universities have so much to offer.  With help from the private sector, both industry and philanthropy, the fruits (and vegetables) of the land-grant mission can help to weather the coming storm of climate change and its impact on our food supply.


The private sector and universities need to collaborate ASAP to dot their “i”s, cross their “t”s, and mind their “P”s and “Q”s to address these D-E-F challenges.  You may be LOL or saying OMG, but this is not a recipe for alphabet soup or a strategy for winning a game of Scrabble©. This is an urgent call to action. After all, MMXL (2040) will be here before we know it.



Currently serving for a second time as president of West Virginia University, Dr. E. Gordon Gee has been a leader in higher education for more than three decades. In 2009 Time magazine named him one of the top 10 university presidents in the United States. Recently, the website Great Value Colleges named him the nation’s top university president. In addition to his service at West Virginia University, Gee served as president of The Ohio State University (twice), Vanderbilt University, Brown University, and the University of Colorado. He is the co-author of over a dozen books, including his two most recent, “Leading Colleges and Universities” and “Land-Grant Universities for the Future.” He has also authored many papers and articles on law and education. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the National 4-H Council, the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America and Board of Directors of the American Council on Education – the nation’s largest higher education organization.

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