Note from Pete Simpson:

In last July’s Pete Simpson Forum, “The Two Worlds and the University of Wyoming,” concern over the proper balance at UW between the sciences on the one hand and the humanities and arts on the other was addressed by former arts and sciences dean Dr. Gerry Meyer and Casper attorney Nick Murdock. Though they diverged, they shared common ground in terms of the need for such balance.

That issue now takes on sharper dimensions in light of mandatory budget cuts dictated by the governor and Legislature this past session of anywhere between $10 million and $15 million. In assessing impacts on the college of arts and sciences a “worst case scenario” described cutting the departments of philosophy, sociology and statistics.

As bleak as advocates might see this, such is the nature of contemporary decision making throughout higher education. In Florida, Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina there is serious consideration being given to eliminating state subsidies for the liberal arts in all state-funded institutions. Obviously, revenue problems affect policy and the resulting decisions most often emphasize the practical and pragmatic over the theoretical and humanistic.

 In Wyoming, the rapid reduction of mineral revenue sources attendant to the fall of oil prices has placed similar pressure on the public schools which face a little over a $15 million shortfall.

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In this month’s forum, two contributors, one with extensive administrative and academic experience at UW and one with a background in public education and the humanities, explore implications of budget constraints for balance in Wyoming’s educational institutions.       

Don Roth is recently retired Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the School of Advanced Energy Studies and past Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Wyoming. Roth’s assessment of these stresses goes beyond the question of balance to the need to re-think offerings in the humanities and social sciences with an eye to integrative approaches with the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum. 

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: Will UW train workers or prepare citizens?

The fate of public school offerings in the humanities and arts is addressed by Audrey Cotherman, former Wyoming Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction and past Director of the Wyoming Humanities Council. Her observations speak to the long-term effects of curricular imbalances for the lives of students.   

Is there a crisis, or are we “crying wolf?” Tell us what direction you see in our educational institutions and what balance you would like to see achieved. — Pete Simpson

Higher education may benefit from a little paranoia

By Don Roth

In the early part of the 20th century HG Wells noted that “History is a race between education and catastrophe.” In our rapidly changing 21st century global society, education is even more the crucial factor determining personal and professional advancement, and societal progress. And recognizing this vital relationship, public interest in the purpose, efficiency, and outcomes of higher education has never been greater.

Don Roth is Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the School of Advanced Energy Studies and past Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Wyoming. (Photo courtesy of Don Roth)
Don Roth is Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the School of Advanced Energy Studies and past Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Wyoming. (Photo courtesy of Don Roth)

We are now engaged in a critical debate about the structure and function of U.S. universities. Unfortunately, much of the conversation has focused on whether the traditional and time-honored broad “liberal” education needs replacement by a more workforce directed focus. This is based on an erroneous and counterproductive premise that assumes that both objectives are mutually exclusive. However, implemented correctly, both in fact are essential and interconnected.

The more relevant issue is how universities can best position graduates as effective citizens in the 21st century society, contributing to the public good, AND having the skill sets necessary for sustained competitive success in the workforce thereby ensuring their private gain.

Higher education directly supports the public good in many ways. There is a strong tie between educational level and enhanced civic responsibility that contributes to strong communities. There is also a direct link with increased societal health, safety, and welfare. Central to the public good is the innovation pipeline that drives societal prosperity. The engine for innovation resides in universities as citadels of research and development. Importantly, the research enterprise also directly supports the highest quality teaching and learning. Great institutions of higher education are invariably also great research institutions.

Higher education is also the admission ticket for workforce success, although the dynamics are changing. Higher salaries, sustained employment, increased job mobility and quality, and increased job satisfaction are all directly related to achievement in higher education. Historically, however, a college diploma from any discipline was sufficient. Employers identified potential and invested in the necessary training. Now, and certainly in the future, employers demand a higher level of entry education as well as specific skill sets to provide immediate return on investment. There is an increasing sense of urgency for graduates to “hit the ground running” and this imperative, in effect, eliminates consideration of many traditional degrees.

To the degree higher education has been indispensable to the fabric of society, future requirements for public good and private gain are rapidly changing. Consider the impacts from a 21st century knowledge landscape characterized by an exponential increase of information, interdependency, complexity, uncertainty, and innovation. Above all, consider the demands imposed by a landscape that is rapidly and constantly changing.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, estimated that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003. And even more significant than general data generation, scientific output doubles every nine years. Information in our global society has a very short shelf life and the gap between information and understanding expands daily.

RELATED | Desperate to keep coal alive, Wyo. banks on technology

Graduates also can expect to change careers, not just jobs, more than five times during their working life. Andy Grove, the recently deceased cofounder of Intel, noted that Intel products sold in December were mostly not even planned in the previous January. The title of his book that describes the rapid change and urgency demanded to stay competitive in business is entitled “Only The Paranoid Survive.” Higher education may benefit from a little paranoia.

In order for higher education to continue to meet its responsibilities to further the public good, and in order for it to satisfy constituent needs to realize private gain, it is imperative that it becomes more resilient, adopts a greater sense of urgency, and establishes a strategic focus. It can’t continue “business as usual,” cramming more and more information into developing minds in a limited time period and expecting desired outcomes to be realized. Complacency is not part of the solution.

Rather, it is vital for higher education to critically evaluate the specific elements necessary for sustained effectiveness in the workforce and as citizens in a complex, heterogeneous global society. The strategic focus should be guided by a balance between public good and private gain. But what exactly are these fundamental skill sets, indispensable competencies, behaviors, and attitudes? And how can we best reveal them to students? Bearing in mind that we can’t predict the future, higher education fundamentally must position graduates for self-directed and sustained learning underpinned by an entrepreneurial and resilient spirit.

Certainly foundational content knowledge is critical, but we should re-think the single discipline approach of traditional higher education against the team focused, interdisciplinary approach favored by business in finding solutions to multi-dimensional, complex problems. But beyond learning more and more content, there must be a strategy to explicitly translate the educational experience into expertise and integrate enabling skills required for sustained contribution to the public good and private gain.

These skills include the ability to synthesize and translate information into understanding, a self-reliant work ethic, problem solving and communication skills, a passion for inquiry, constant striving for improvement, and, perhaps above all, the ability to function comfortably in the face of uncertainty and change. Teaching these critical competencies, however, is not the domain of any one academic discipline. They must be effectively and unambiguously integrated into every program curriculum.

In light of budget cuts recently mandated for UW — somewhere in the realm of $10 million to $15 million over the next fiscal year — it behooves the University to challenge itself to evaluate the feasibility and to initiate the process to restructure traditional degree programs into dynamic, contemporary, interdisciplinary learning platforms for the 21st century. In that process, UW must beware of allowing drastic cuts to marginalize or further diminish the humanities and related subjects. Rather, faculty should be challenged to establish integrated, multidisciplinary teams that address traditional academic necessities while responding to the global issues of our time.

For example, the humanities are indispensable to solutions related to development and application of artificial intelligence platforms, cybersecurity, and big data analytics, and in addressing emerging global terrorism.

Meeting these important challenges and serving the public good and private gain is not trivial, but as Wyomingites understand, “The harder the ride, the higher the score!”

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  1. University of Wyoming is continued to be treated like a simple technical institute by the Governor and legislators. As long as they censor science, and devalue any Humanities not fitting their beliefs, UW will have very little purpose, other than keeping undereducated Wyoming notes in the worker pool for King Mineral. There will be no progress, no development, no diversification. There will be no thinking outside the box. Instead, the box is being shrunk to a small unimaginative cube.

    If we don’t block the legislative political control and censorship of primary and secondary education, then the best way for a young student from Wyoming to get a useful and innovative education, is for them to get that education outside of Wyoming.

  2. Don Roth’s perspective is one I share with some qualifications. Over his career, Don created excellent learning opportunities. I believe his proposal for dynamic learning platforms creates better prepared students (for living a life well lived and getting a job) but, at its heart, the proposal only works if you can trust that the institution will foster what Don advocates. Does the institution display a basis for our trust when it marches confidently on to cut $40 million from academics while building a $40+ million training facility? Has one trustee said, “listen, I love football but we are not spending another dime on it until we replace the academic programs we are losing?” If so, we might feel better about lending our trust to the institution and its leaders. Speaking to parents who have taken on second mortgages to send their children to UW, I understand their consternation that their children may have to change academic goals or go somewhere else for an undergraduate eduction so they might see a better football game six times a year. If you cannot trust the institution, Audrey’s perspective may be the only alternative to adopt as weak leadership does not foster what Don advocates.