Public universities and America’s future

On Thursday, Sept. 20, President Ruth Watkins welcomed thought leaders from around the nation to reflect on the role of public universities in a changing America. Please find summaries and videos of the three sessions below.

“The university role in exceptional education and workforce in the 21st century”

Experts kicked off the inauguration symposium by discussing how the university system needs to evolve to meet the needs of our changing society and economy. Rich Kendell, the former commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, introduced the first talk, “The university role in exceptional education and workforce in the 21st century.” He welcomed Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, who discussed the changing demographics in Utah and what that means in terms of access to education. “We have challenges that are played out by the opportunities that people either have, or are blocked from, in our neighborhoods,” she said. “We are called as a community to reengineer these infrastructures of opportunity so that they work for a new day.”

Next, President emerita Dave W. Pershing introduced Teresa Sullivan, president emerita of the University of Virginia and professor of psychology, who discussed The public university and tomorrow’s workforce. She shared her experiences as both as university president and a labor market demographer to illustrate how job preparation is a critical part of the modern university.

Daniel Reed, senior vice president of academic affairs at the U, moderated Preparing students to succeed in the global economy. Jayne Hart, executive vice president of human resources at Myriad Genetics discussed the qualities that her company values in new employees, Courtney McBeth, project director of the American Dream Ideas Challenge at the U talked about getting students to finish their degree, Taylor Randall, dean of the U’s David Eccles School of Business, asked why can’t we mix work and education together to ease students’ financial burden, and Barbara Wilson, executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois System, talked about how important it is to teach students the “soft skills” required to work in a multi-cultural, team-driven world.

Nina Barnes, vice chair of the Utah Board of Regents, introduced Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). Huftalin talked about the partnership between SLCC and the U, the successes, and where there is room for improving student success.

University research and innovation

In this session, presenters explored the barriers to interdisciplinary research, the economic impact of institutional research and the value of close proximity and partnership between academic and medical campuses.

Mabel Rice, director of the Merrill Advanced Studies Center at the University of Kansas, spoke about the administrative roadblocks that can “gum up” interdisciplinary research. Following Rice, Andy Weyrich, vice president for research at the University of Utah, introduced a panel discussion on “Institutional research impact on economic development” that explored how a university impacts an economy, through bringing in outside dollars, partnering with local government, and developing basic research into marketable products. The panel also highlighted the impact of services that may not have a monetary value, but still positively impact the university’s home community. The final panel, led by Michael L. Good, senior vice president for health sciences at the U, addressed the strengths of leveraging a research university with an academic medical center. The panel talked about the potential for cross-campus collaborations and training, and the economic revitalization that can come from such comprehensive and entrepreneurial institutions. “For the magic to happen,” Good said, summarizing the panel’s remarks, “you have to get the right people in the room.”

Community and university: Partners for change

The final session focused on case studies about what it means to be both anchor institutions and engaged public universities with their communities.

Sherri-Ann Butterfield, executive vice chancellor and associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark, delivered remarks during lunch focusing on the role of a university as an anchor institution. She explained at Rutgers this meant the university had to redefine “what a good student looks like.” If the university was going to effectively serve its community it needed to reflect the community. This required rethinking admissions criteria and recognizing that “students wouldn’t have a chance to succeed, if they weren’t even selected to attend.” She challenged the audience to reflect on their own programs and evaluate what changes were needed to effectively serve their community.

Sarah George, executive director of the Utah Museum of Natural History, emphasized that listening to the community has been an important part of the museum’s success. She says the goal of the museum is to “foster informed and caring communities” and it does so through citizen science.

Brooke Horejsi, executive director of UtahPresents, said part of her group’s emphasis is on bringing artists and performances to campus that defy the traditional western view of art. Her vision is for UtahPresents to be venue for performers to be open, free and make a connection and impact on their audience.

Wyatt Hume, dean of the U’s School of Dentistry, explained the school is grounded in caring for the underserved. “When the Noorda family made their gift to the school, they said we’ll help pay for the building if you’ll take care of the dental needs of the community,” said Hume.  The school is supported in its mission through partnerships with other dentists and service groups around the state.

Julie Metos, associate chair of the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, talked about the university’s Driving Out Diabetes initiative. Like the dental school, the diabetes initiative was sparked by a donation from the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation and includes both outreach to the community and research. The U’s new Wellness Bus is the most visible part of the initiative and visits four underserved communities each week. Research is focused on making “insulin smarter” and more effective.

Sarah Munro, executive director of the University Neighborhood Partners, shared the important work that the program is doing in serving as a catalyst for change on the west side of Salt Lake City. She emphasized the university’s role in helping the community identify common goals, bringing partners together and bringing voice to groups that historically have been unheard in decision-making that affects their community.

The day wrapped up with remarks from Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and President Watkins. Cox complimented the university’s efforts to serve the entire state and noted the community excitement around the university’s American Dream Ideas Challenge. Watkins closed the session by challenging everyone in the audience to continue to focus and act on the ideas discussed during the symposium.