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NRC Releases Report on Future of Research Universities

August 14, 2012

The National Research Council has released a new report, Research Universities and the Future of America, outlining ten recommendations for strengthening these institutions “so that they may remain dynamic assets over the coming decades.”

The report touches on the wide range of key issues, such as the economic recovery and prospects for economic growth, state budget deficits, high unemployment, security challenges, evolving technologies, global competition for students, and spiraling health care costs.

The AAG Newsletter asked AAG past president Ken Foote (University of Colorado, Boulder) to comment on the report from his perspective as someone who has been following these debates closely. In 2011, Foote organized the AAG Presidential Plenary, “Geography in the Changing Worlds of Higher Education” to address geography’s future in the context of the changing role of the university in society.

Although Foote found the report well worth reading, he felt it left important gaps in its arguments and recommendations. “The focus on research universities is appropriate and needed” Foote told the AAG Newsletter, “but also undercuts some of the recommendations. If the top 100-150 U.S. institutions are Continued on page 12 the most important in terms of their value to sustaining American leadership, it would justify some policymakers to sacrifice other elements of the higher education system to sustain the primacy of the top institutions.” While Research Universities and the Future of America argues that the overall “ecology” of higher education across all institutions is one of the strengths of the U.S. system, “the report’s focus on the top institutions belies this claim” said Foote.

“If more federal funding is funneled to top institutions, would such a policy be supported by the majority of states that don’t have such institutions? And for states like California, Pennsylvania, or Texas that have world-class public institutions, can’t state legislators beg off on increasing funding by simply saying that ‘If they’re so good they can obviously support themselves!’” commented Foote.

“I wish the report had gone a bit further in trying to show how some of the issues, challenges, opportunities, and recommendations cross-cut on another. That is, the issues of demographic change, diversity, and international faculty all seem to be intertwined,” Foote said.

For those who want to better understand the complexity of the issues involved, Foote recommends The Great American University by Jonathan R. Cole (2009), The Future of the Public University in America by James Duderstadt and Farris Womack (2003), and The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World by Ben Wildavsky (2010). Research Universities and the Future of America is available at www.nationalacademies.org

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