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David Leebron: The TT Interview

The president of Rice University on the declining reputation of higher education, the difference between public and private universities, and the future of academic research.

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Last week, Rice University in Houston held its eighth annual De Lange Conference, an event that is held every other year and is designed to bring experts and prominent figures to campus to focus on a topic of great concern to society. This year, that topic was “the future of the research university in a global age.”

In his opening remarks, Rice President David Leebron shared some sobering observations about the current state of higher education, including that its public reputation “is at a low point.”

“The higher education structure stands almost alone in its absence of deep structural change,” said Leebron, who has served in his current position at Rice, the state’s most prestigious private university, since 2004. Before that, he was dean of the Columbia Law School.

The two-day conference featured presentations by thinkers of a similar pedigree, including University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings.

After the conference concluded, Leebron talked to The Texas Tribune about what he gleaned from the discussion, the state of academia and how higher education will look different in the future.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TT: You mentioned that the public reputation of higher education is at a low point. Why is that?

Leebron: Well, I think there are a variety of things, some of which have accumulated over the years. Every once in a while, there’s some scandal, although they generally are very small in higher education, trivial by what you see in the corporate arena. The public tends to remember those. They hold us to very high standards.

Those undermine the very high reputation that higher ed in the United States has historically enjoyed. And then I think there’s the question of price and affordability. I think it’s very hard for the public to understand. The finances of higher education are quite complicated. What’s the real cost of higher ed, which is pretty opaque?

But that sense that this is getting more and more expensive, more and more unaffordable for many. That’s not entirely true, but that’s the perception.

And that also undermines confidence. That’s the kind of thing as I said creates this view in a significant part of the public that higher education is more concerned about the bottom line than the education of their children.

I don’t think that’s true, but I understand the perception.

TT: You also pointed out that universities have been slow to change. How do you go about changing things that have been set in a certain way for so long?

Leebron: Well I think we have to be careful. One of the things that was alluded to in the conference, but not covered, was the diversity of higher education institutions. When the politicians get on their bandwagon, they very often just talk about some concern in one part of the sector.

We have great community colleges in this country. We have liberal arts colleges. We have universities that are not research universities. We have research universities. Now we have for-profit universities.

There are so many kinds of institutions. So I think when people talk about changing things, they need to first realize that the great benefit we have is this diversity in our higher education institutions, which in fact create all kinds of opportunities.

Moving on from there, I think there are several things that probably are going to force us to change. The economics of it are attracting increasing hostility, and we have to work our way through those. The availability of distance education in various formats, the potential competition of a for-profit sector, global competition, pressure on almost every source of revenue that we have.

All of those things are going to force us to think more seriously about changing the way we do some things.

TT: What was your main takeaway from the conference?

Leebron:  Interestingly enough, I think, for many of us, the main takeaway is that we actually have to look at the very core of what we do.

And that is how students learn most effectively, and how we can use the particular aspects of our institutions, which are sometimes very expensive, to create the best learning environment.

That’s where, sometimes, we’re a little out of date, where people are still standing in front of the classroom and lecturing and the use of very expensive printed textbooks to learn things. How we integrate all the different kinds of information available to our students.

Also, I think whereas traditionally education has always emphasized what the individual student achieves more or less on his or her own. I think we see much more emphasis now on how effective are people working in teams, or working with others, or in leading.

These subjects become integrated with some of the substantive subjects. So we have to break down the compartmentalization of education, and we have to make sure that the time that we spend with our students is time spent in the most effective way.

Technology is a piece of this, but the conversation wasn’t so much about technology as it was about what makes for effective learning on the part of students.

TT: Is there a difference in the mission between the private universities and the public universities?

Leebron: Not as much as people would suspect actually. One difference is that the public universities have a more strongly geographic aspect of their mission. If a university is supported by the state of Texas, then there’s a certain obligation to the state of Texas.

The tension exists now because as the state support is a smaller and smaller percentage of the cost of such institutions, then the question is how much really they ought to control those institutions.

But if you look at the research university, the publics and the privates, all of us have service as a very strong element of our mission. All of us want to make equal opportunity available to people for the best education regardless of their family means.

Public institutions have traditionally done that by keeping their prices low because of support from the state. The private institutions have done that by making available individually tailored scholarship packages in large part made possible by the generosity of philanthropists.

But the general mission of the two, in my mind, is not substantially different.

TT: What are some of the changes people might see at an institution like Rice in the coming years?

Leebron: They are going to see a change around pedagogy. There are going to be fewer people standing in front of a classroom and lecturing. There will be more use not only of distance education but the use of software to help educate people, and the classroom will steadily become a much more interactive space.

We’re also going to see a continuing trend of university engagement in the world around them, of helping solve the problems of society. That’s been the case for some time, but I think it’s going to intensify.

That’s going to mean building strong partnerships with government agencies, strong partnerships with industry. It’s going to be local, it’s going to be national and it’s going to be international.

We’ve already proceeded well down that road.

I think we’re going to find ways to deal with increasingly mobile faculty and students who are going to spend their time at more than one institution.

We’re going to have to figure out how to maintain a very strong sense of community as we create in effect a much more porous and connected university.

I think that’s going to be a challenge in the years ahead.

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