Friday, November 12, 2010

The Reinvention Center 2010 National Conference

I'm in Washington DC at the 2010 National Conference of a group called The Reinvention Center, a national consortium of research universities established in 2000 and inspired by the Boyer Commission report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Universities (1998).

There's about 200 people here, almost all from major American universities.  Many people who run innovative programs in the humanities and sciences, and there are lots of vice-presidents and deans and program directors.  The sessions are strongly focused on what needs to change and how.

The first talk has just ended.  Bernadette Gray-Little is Chancellor of the University of Kansas, so her talk was focused on the changing forces acting on research universities - how students view us, how donors view us, the risks of the necessary changes to become more entrepreneurial.  
  • "The Kenmore model: As courses and other educational resources become increasingly available on-line, will universities become retailers for educational products we have not created and do not control?"
  • The proportions of minority students are shifting - disproportionate numbers are going to for-profit institutions (mostly online).  Partly this is due to better marketing - the for-profits advertise that they offer students more flexibility and maybe less debt, but the student experience is very different.
The questions are great.  The man beside me is asking about the role of ethics in these changes.  Will we risk becoming like WalMart, doing wrong to make money?  She doesn't, of course, have answers, just cautions.

We like to think about the research experiences that students can get, but most students don't because there aren't enough places in faculty labs for them.  So how do we scale our advantages?  I'm sitting beside a woman who runs an HHMI- and NSF-supported program that puts 500 freshman students (at U. Texas Austin) into research labs, in groups mentored by full-time postdoctoral teaching fellows.

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