Fulfilling Our Potential, Meeting Our Challenges

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Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans
Austin American-Statesman, November 16, 2004

Great universities shape not only the people within them, but also the community and world around them. They prepare students to take on challenging careers, to embrace knowledge and to define new frontiers. They also provide an environment for academics and researchers to study our past in order to envision our future, and to drive the innovations that move society ahead. This has a profound impact well beyond the ivory tower or the Forty Acres.

I applaud this series of "academic engagement" essays designed to explore the issue of bringing higher education out of the 19th century and into the 21st. Some important issues have been raised by University of Texas professor Rick Cherwitz and his colleagues, and as former chairman of the UT Board of Regents, I appreciate the opportunity to provide my own thoughts.

Although it is tempting to ask how the University of Texas will prepare for the future, I think we should perhaps ask a more provocative question: "What does the future require of the University of Texas?"

Over the past three and a half years, I've had the honor of serving President Bush and the American people as Secretary of Commerce. This has given me the opportunity to travel the country and the world, meet with national and global leaders and talk to CEOs, entrepreneurs and workers. I've seen the brilliance and energy that creates companies, drives organizations, leads to innovation and seeks freedom.

Feeding this brilliance and energy is a job much bigger than one university or even one nation, but it is exactly what the 21st century requires from the University of Texas and the United States.

We are at a defining moment in our history. We must prevail in a global war against an enemy that wants to destroy the foundation of our very society. At the same time, technology and communications allow us to bring hope and opportunity to more people than ever. Invention and innovation place new goals and cures, once thought impossible, within our reach. And former adversaries have now evolved into our strategic allies and global economic competitors.

Our challenges are daunting, but the potential is unprecedented. History has placed this potential before us and given us all a great responsibility to meet it. Americans must engage all of our talents and ability in order to continue to be a beacon of hope and strength for the world. We cannot be bystanders.

This nation's academic community and leading universities are central in this effort. They create the spark. They provide knowledge for those who seek it. And they must convert bystanders into participants. Thomas Jefferson called for an "aristocracy of virtue and talent." This charge should drive our efforts today.

But realizing Jefferson's virtuous aristocracy won't be easy. Developments in information technology, biotechnology, energy and 21st century innovations such as nanotechnology will create new jobs, careers and industries. The potential for those who are prepared to meet the future is tremendous. But we must make sure the prosperity and opportunities awaiting us are available to everyone.

Juan Enriquez, director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School, has speculated that we will see tremendous growth and prosperity -- but possibly in only a few ZIP codes.

President Bush recognizes that education is the key to overcoming disparities and creating equality. A cornerstone of his domestic competitiveness agenda is the landmark No Child Left Behind Act. This act changed the paradigm for education by placing the priority on results and changing the culture of American schools.

We must build upon No Child Left Behind and make our education system as innovative and entrepreneurial as our economy. This means seeking new ways to reach students. This means redefining the very definition of "student" because individuals don't stop learning when they receive a diploma. We need effective lifelong learning strategies that recognize and assign value to knowledge gained over a lifetime. We need to embrace technology to teach and learn in new ways.

Imagine an education platform that connects to young people in the same way as a PlayStation. What if teenagers rushed home to play Einstein 2004 instead of Madden 2004? The possibilities are limitless, and those who pursue them will be true academic entrepreneurs.

For UT and all the talented minds that drive it, the future is calling in unprecedented directions. True to the great pioneering spirit of Texas, we will no doubt reach a little higher and try a little harder to achieve goals beyond ordinary limits and expectations. What an exciting time to be an academic entrepreneur.
Evans is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and former Chairman of the UT Board of Regents