Universities as Partners: Some Principles

Universities as Partners: Some Principles

In 1963, Clark Kerr – then the president of the University of California – expressed the “idea of the multiversity”1 (Kerr, 2001). Demonstrating how the American university had been cobbled together from British and German forms of undergraduate and graduate education, combined with uniquely American approaches like the land grant colleges, Kerr noted that by the middle of the 20th century the university had become the multiversity – more characterized by diversity of purpose than by the original construction of a “single community of masters and students.”

Kerr went on to describe the many challenges faced by American universities because of the reality that “The university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be at war with itself.” While the diversity of purpose observed by Kerr has been at the heart of much of the value created by American universities over the last 100 years, the kinds of economic and societal challenges our world faces today demand that universities further transform. While maintaining and even expanding their diversity of purpose, they must settle their wars to be the best possible partners to the private, civic, and social sectors in addressing the great economic and societal issues of our time.

“It is because the American university has grown up as such a complex and diverse enterprise that I believe in its capacity to shape itself for a future of powerful partnerships – with business and industry, with government, and with nonprofits – to realize shared goals for society and the economy”

Here I present three principles that university leaders might adopt as they work to ensure that the multiversity results in economic and societal value creation.

Make the Most of Networks

Networks may be the single most powerful organizing principle for how we think about social and organizational systems in the early part of the 21st Century. As universities have become engaged in regional economic development, transitioning technology to market opportunity, and other knowledge transfer efforts, they have recognized that universities must become part of, and to some extent help to cultivate, networks. Given the diverse range of assets of the multiversity, individual institutions have connected to and helped to spawn thousands of networks that are helping to bring the value of knowledge and discovery to real world application.

What universities have not done, however, is figured out how to behave like networks themselves. The many and varies assets of the institution are in most cases simply unaware of each other or not connected, and in some cases, as suggested by Kerr, at war. The future of the university in economic and societal impact rests partly in universities learning how to not only be part of external networks, but also how to activate internal networks. University leaders must inventory the many and varied assets, draw linkages where they can, and create opportunities for heretofore disconnected factions to collaborate and engage in knowledge transfer together.

Start with Engagement

In the U.S., one often hears about the “tripartite mission” of universities as “teaching, research, and service.” The Kellogg Commission² (2000) encouraged us to think of it as “learning, discovery, and engagement.” No matter how the mission is discussed, the “engagement” part always comes last. It may not be that people think engagement is least important (though some certainly do). But most think that engagement is something the university does after it’s taken care of the other missions of the institution.

For universities to be effective partners in economic and societal advancement in the future, it will be necessary to flip the mission and make engagement first. If universities first listen to and connect with stakeholders, and allow those conversations to inform what the teaching/learning and research/discovery missions, everyone benefits. Learning is more relevant. People understand how science is connected to society. More stakeholders feel that they have some ownership in higher education. University faculty and administrators need to cultivate a practice of listening, find ways to align the assets of both the university and external stakeholders, and focus on co-designing solutions through partnerships.

Become More Agile

If future universities are able to adopt the first two principles described above, they have likely developed, to some extent, a culture of responsiveness and agility. What is agility? It is, simply, the ability to move quickly and easily. Programs and initiatives designed to have a sustained impact on the economy, our communities, or society at large must be prepared for change.

As universities work on developing such programs, faculty and administrators need to think about how the underlying structures and implementation can remain flexible and responsive to changing needs and demands. One way to start is to simply look for places in the university where flexibility exists. No matter how set in its ways, every institution has places where curriculum, research agendas, student services, and other activities are proving flexible, or where the possibility of flexibility exists. The key to universities being effective partners in economic and societal in the future is in identifying these points of flexibility, convening diverse internal and external players to come up with novel ideas about leveraging those opportunities for agility, and simply trying something (and if it doesn’t work, trying it again!).

The idea of the multiversity will continue to be reality, and the multiversity identity will likely intensify as we progress into the future. The future university, however, will not be able to simply accept Kerr’s inevitable manifestation of that identity – an institution at war with itself. Instead, the universities that will be the most successful partners in creating prosperity, equity, health, opportunity, and other elements of a better world will be those that tap connect internal networks, listen to stakeholders and let what they hear influence their work, and work constantly toward flexibility, nimbleness, and agility.

1 Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001
2 Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, Renewing the Covenant: Learning, Discovery, and Engagement in a New Age and Different World, National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) (now APLU—Association of Public and Land-grant Universities), 2000, Available online: http://www.aplu. org/library/renewing-the-covenant-learning-discovery-and-engagement-in-a


James K. (Jim) Woodell, PhD helps realize the economic and societal impact through the provision of professional services to institutions of higher education and to their partners in the private, civic, and government sectors. Jim’s expertise includes: community development in regions through engagement, outreach, and public service; education, training, and workforce development; and R&D and innovation and technology-based economic development. He served as vice president at the Association of Public and Landgrant Universities (APLU), creating the Office of Economic Development and Community Engagement. At APLU, Jim established the Innovation and Economic Prosperity (IEP) Universities designation and awards program, and led the development and publication of the Economic Engagement Framework—including the series’ flagship publication Higher Education Engagement in Economic Development: Foundations for Strategy and Practice. Woodell earned his PhD in Higher Education at Penn State University, a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a Bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University.

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