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The University of the Future: Part 2

February 7, 2018

Undercurrents: From Oceanographer to University PresidentIn Part 2 of John Byrne’s November 2000 speech titled “The University of the Future,” the Oregon State University Emeritus President explores the importance of, and interconnections between, university access, experiential learning, and engagement with society. These discussions from nearly 18 years ago are still relevant today as institutions of higher education work to promote diversity of thought, perspective, and backgrounds, and produce graduates who are socially and intellectually prepared. John Byrne’s new book Undercurrents: From Oceanographer to University President recounts his life and career and explores how he used the lessons learned in industry and government to guide OSU through a particularly turbulent period of budget restrictions and economic contraction.


From: “The University of the Future”
A Keynote Address presented to The Alliance of Universities for Democracy
Eleventh Annual Conference
By: John V. Byrne
Emeritus President, Oregon State University
November 5, 2000

In responding vigorously to the rapid changes in the needs of our global society, the university of the future will alter its traditional mission of teaching plus research plus service to one of integrated learning, discovery, and engagement in which all learners are part of a larger, societal learning community. The university of the future will protect scholarship and free inquiry, will relate student scholarship to learning, will take advantage of the latest technologies, and will restructure itself to meet the needs of society. Throughout, it will have a common sense of academic identity based on the democratization of learning that lies at the very heart of higher education. Through its leadership the university of the future will have the capacity to help society deal with change in a positive way. Above all, it will be flexible in recognizing the needs of students in our rapidly changing world and putting those needs at the top of its priorities.


The successful universities of the future will provide opportunities for intellectual and social development to all those persons who have the intelligence and motivation necessary for success. These individuals must be identified early, nurtured, and developed intellectually so that at the appropriate time they will meet the standards for entrance to higher education. Successful universities will build new partnerships with elementary and secondary schools to increase the number of students capable of matriculating on campus. Universities will continually improve their teacher preparation programs to meet the needs of a changing society.

Universities will validate admission requirements by insisting on meaningful correlations between requirements and subsequent student success and by searching for new ways of judging merit and identifying potential. Diversity will be encouraged by broadening the admission process. We should recognize that there is a vast array of backgrounds that often mask the inherent abilities of many prospective students, and we must be aggressive in finding a variety of ways to identify these individuals and bring them into the educational experience. The factors that can and do work against so many young people include socio-economic status, attendance at schools with a history of sending few students to college, coming from single-parent homes, or being first-generation students. Institutions will clarify course credit transfer and articulation agreements by approving inter-institutional transfer of credit and simplifying student progress toward their degrees.

The Learning Experience

The optimum learning experience for each individual student exists in a student-centered learning environment. To ensure that all students are part of the learning community the university will:

  • Reinforce its commitment to undergraduate instruction, with special emphasis on the first two years, while strengthening the link between education and career;
  • Improve teaching and educational quality by defining educational objectives more clearly, and by improving assessment of its success while still keeping college affordable and accessible;
  • Place responsibility for learning on the student while providing more opportunities for hands-on learning, including research at the undergraduate level;
  • Introduce all students to classroom experiences that stretch their intellectual horizons and encourage them to exercise analytical muscles most of them never knew they had;
  • Address the academic and personal development of students in a holistic way; activities outside the classroom enhance learning just as activities in the classroom do and attention must be given to blending the two in a meaningful manner;
  • Stress the importance of ethical behavior and moral values, especially in activities that contribute most directly to the student’s learning;
  • Provide students with the help they need to succeed by creating support programs that assist them in meeting their individual needs.

Engaging with Society

As universities become more engaged with the communities they serve it will become increasingly obvious that engagement is itself a learning process. It is incumbent on institutions to provide students with direct learning opportunities brought about through engagement. To this end institutions should redesign teaching, research, extension, and service functions to become even more connected to their communities. Universities must enrich student experience and help change the campus culture by bringing research and engagement into the curriculum and by offering practical opportunities for students to learn. This will involve integrating the students’ academic experiences with activities in their community in order to help prepare them for the challenges life will place before them. The learning opportunities that come with service to others undoubtedly help everyone involved. Through engagement the values of both society and the university will be enhanced and become increasingly compatible.

Recognizing the importance of learning throughout an individual’s lifetime, public universities have a significant, even unique, role in addressing aspects of a learning society. It will continue to be the responsibility of universities to ensure that the demand for education throughout the lifetime of virtually every citizen can be satisfied, so that lifelong learning becomes a reality for all those who desire it. Universities must encourage research on the learning process in order to develop ways to increase the ability of individuals to learn during all phases of their lives, pre-kindergarten to senior citizen. It is crucial that they equip students with the higher-order reasoning skills required for lifelong learning by providing programs with sufficient flexibility to meet the changing demands of an evolving workforce. Students will be able to inform institutions as to their own specific needs in updating and adding to their skills and interests throughout their lifetimes. The use of computers and other interactive information technologies will enable students and universities to maintain close ties for learning and information exchange.

Universities will affirm that lifelong learning is part of their core mission by providing broad access to a wide variety of teaching and learning opportunities and approaches ranging from traditional, on-campus instruction to Internet-based courses, all used in the most effective and efficient ways possible. They will develop partnerships - with other colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, and government and private sector organizations - based on the knowledge and understanding that learning will take place throughout an individual’s lifetime. They will encourage accreditation associations to develop standards for lifelong learning and appropriate expectations for institutions concerning programs offered through distance education. They will encourage public investment in lifelong learning in recognition of the importance of continuing intellectual development as a key to a successful society.

In addition to supporting lifelong learning as part of its fundamental mission in a learning society, the engaged institution will put its critical resources - knowledge and expertise - to work on the problems that face the communities it serves. Creation and application of knowledge is a unique contribution the university can make to a contemporary society. Potential areas for engagement include, but are not limited to:

  • Education and the economy;
  • Agriculture and food;
  • Rural communities;
  • Health care;
  • Urban revitalization and community renewal;
  • Children, youth and families;
  • Environment and natural resources.

In order to enhance engagement with the communities they serve, universities will transform their thinking about service so that engagement becomes a campus priority, a central part of the institutional mission. The “engaged” university will develop an engagement plan and provide learning experiences for students through the engagement process, encourage interdisciplinary scholarship in both teaching and research, develop incentives to encourage faculty involvement in the engagement effort, and secure stable funding to support engagement.

The university of the future that successfully serves its purpose will provide students with an education of value and one that stresses values. The educational experience will be one that alters the student’s mind in a positive way, broadening his/her intellectual background and an understanding of elements important to all of humanity, as well as the past and present achievement of humans. The intellectual experience should be one that equips the student to make a meaningful contribution to society and prepares the student for a productive and successful life. But developing skills and talents are not enough. The student needs to take from the university experience a greater awareness of fundamental moral and social values as well. The university of the future will play an active role in instilling in each student the values of integrity, responsibility, dependability, respect for other individuals, and a recognition of the importance of excellence in all one does. Through attention to this role of the social and moral development of its students, the universities of tomorrow will be increasingly important factors in the development of civil societies everywhere - they will, in fact, become the architects of democracy.


The beginning of a new millennium can be a time of renewal and reform. It can be a time when higher education and the public it serves can renew their partnership, can re-frame the relationship of educational service and of support, can agree to work together for a better society and a better world. To begin, it is time for higher education to recommit to these six basic elements on its side of the partnership:

  • Educational opportunity that is genuinely equal because it provides access to success without regard to race, ethnicity, age, occupation, or economic background;
  • Excellence in undergraduate, graduate, and professional curricula; • Learning environments that meet the civic objectives of higher education by preparing students to lead and participate in a democratic society;
  • Complex and broad-based agendas for discovery, research, and graduate education that are informed by the latest scholarship and responsive to pressing public needs;
  • Conscious efforts to bring the resources and expertise of our institutions to bear on community, state, national, and international problems in a coherent way; and
  • Systems and data that will allow us to make an open accounting of our progress toward achieving our commitment to the public good.

In return, society must recognize the value of higher education and must support it adequately and consistently. Without adequate societal support higher education will be limited as it endeavors to prepare individuals for a successful life and as it contributes to the continued development of civil societies.

Finally, as you think of the future and the role of higher education in that future, reflect on the extraordinary privilege - and awesome responsibility - we have to alter for the better the minds of learners of all ages and persuasions who will of themselves have the opportunity to improve our world.

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