To be Great, Universities Must Also Stress Service

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Read Other Essays in the Academic Engagement Series

Patricia A. Hayes
Austin American-Statesman
October 25, 2004

I grew up with the classical university ideal of excellence in three critical areas -- research, teaching and service to society.

As a graduate student at a great research university and teacher/administrator at two wonderful teaching universities, I confirmed my understanding of and support for the first two prongs of the triad. In 1998 I left academia for an administrative role in a large healthcare organization that touches the lives of thousands of people and accounts for millions of dollars in public and private spending. In these six years in healthcare, my appreciation for the university mission of service to society has grown dramatically.

Many assign a hierarchy to the three university ideals. First is the academic ideal of great research. It requires comprehensive knowledge of the field, disciplined analysis and the ability to make the creative leap to new knowledge. Without the evolution of new knowledge, the world would stand still. Research has always rightfully had status in the academic setting.

Teaching is often put in second place, but I would argue that it is just as important as research with openness and caring. With openness and caring, great teachers bridge the distance from a well-mastered field of expertise to the active minds of learners. From kindergarten to graduate programs, a great teacher is one who believes in the potentiality of others and integrates the thinking and learning of a lifetime with the experiences and questions of students.

If teaching can be put in second place, service to society is often a distant third. The argument is made that research is in and of itself service to society as is great teaching. I agree. But there is a third activity without which the greatness of a university is not fully realized. Our university town has seen the enormous value of technology transfer in creating a vibrant economy. We live with the amazing results of biology and chemistry changing the face of medicine and extending our lives.

This service outreach needs to be intentional, and thus I fully support the commitment to what UT professor Rick Cherwitz--in the introductory essay of this series on academic engagement--calls educating "citizen-scholars."

So how can a university do this without diluting its strengths or overburdening its limited resources? I believe university communities could interact much more closely with the community at large using the framework that already is in place. In support of defining service more robustly within our public and private universities, I would make three practical suggestions:

Refashion our departmental and school advisory boards, moving away from public relations and fund-raising emphasis to a true structured exchange of excellence between great researchers/teachers and great practitioners working in the field. This would be much more than a quarterly meeting at which the community representatives hear what good things are going on at the university; it would be peer dialogue structured for continued mutual learning.

Look at the rank and tenure systems at each university to provide more credit for truly great efforts linking the university and society. I understand that for a given university, every faculty member may need to achieve excellence in research or excellence in teaching. But the university falls short of its purpose if there are no rewards and recognition for the faculty who will also achieve great public service.

Develop faculty/business exchanges with a more sophisticated realization that those who achieve excellence in "doing" probably still remain novices at teaching and will need an academic mentor to be effective in such an exchange program. TAnd the opposite is also true -- that the greatest researcher or teacher in the university will be a novice if he or she has not had extensive experience in the multi-stakeholder, rapid cycle business world.

Communities like Austin that are home to world class universities have an opportunity to become much more involved in technological, social and political structures if they can be more intentional about bridging the gap between town and gown.

Service can be the connector between the university and the community and a fully developed ideal, not a stepchild of research and teaching. It is vitally important to advance service as part of the full university mission, and it will be critical to meeting the economic challenges of Central Texas over the coming decades.


Patricia A. Hayes is the Executive Vice President and COO of SETON Healthcare Network