1. Remarks at NextProf Workshop

    October 1, 2014

    Note: As prepared for delivery

    I thank the Dean, the faculty and staff of the College of Engineering, and the committee members and organizers of this important workshop.

    I’m told that it keeps getting better every year, and I appreciate the work that has gone into making it such a great success.

    Next Prof is very competitive, drawing participants from across the nation, and I congratulate the students and fellows here today.

    I want to give a special shout out to those participating from Michigan, and I also noticed there is a person here from Brown University, which is my previous campus.

    Welcome, students and fellows, and thank you for your interest in higher education.

    As a new university president who has spent three and a half decades as a member of the academy, I can say that NextProf is both welcome and well-timed.

    We live in a remarkable but imperfect world. Racial unrest, environmental threats, religious intolerance, and resource inequities all demand the academy’s attention.

    As a result, we need the best and brightest to embrace careers in higher education.

    One of the goals of this workshop is to show you what it’s like to embark on one of these careers.

    I can assure you that they look much different than they did when I started – just as our nation and the issues we face as a society are different.

    For one thing, colleges and universities attract instantaneous and worldwide attention, for both their accomplishments and their challenges.

    When I started running my lab at Johns Hopkins, I certainly didn’t have to worry about maintaining a twitter account or whether my equipment was interfering with the WI-FI signal.

    At the larger level, what this means is that campuses are, alternatively, in the spotlight and under the microscope, whether it is for saving the life of an Ebola patient, or as we saw last week at the White House, the “It’s On Us” campaign from President Obama against sexual assault.

    At the same time, the very nature of post-secondary teaching and learning is being pressured, and in some cases transformed.

    For instance, technology is changing the delivery of information from faculty to member to student in classrooms and labs. Globalization is influencing every discipline and career.

    And the trend of public disinvestment in research programs and universities themselves has made it clear that new models are needed if we are to remain on the forefront of knowledge creation and discovery.

    There are also opportunities to make great differences in our society and world because of higher education.

    In fact, I believe these opportunities are possibly solely because of higher education, and that is the message I hope you take home after your time with us at U of M.

    I have always been excited by the possibilities that arise from pursuing research for the public good.

    That’s why I started my lab all those years ago and why I have accepted opportunities to grow my responsibilities within the academy.

    As faculty members, we can pursue knowledge that will have impact — knowledge that makes a difference to people, to economies, to our children’s futures.

    And those futures are why we are here today. They can be the ultimate beneficiaries of this workshop.

    As participants in NextProf, you have already been required to show a commitment to diversity, so I hope we can agree that one of the most promising opportunities in that regard is the work we can do to expand access to higher education, for everyone.

    The National Center for National Education Statistics quantifies this for us in projecting that there are now more minority students than white students in the nation’s public K-12 schools.

    Those are the college students of tomorrow – the futures I just mentioned – and taken as a whole, they look very different than the students of today.

    As institutions of higher learning, and the individuals who work or aspire to work at those institutions, we have to be prepared to train those students, and collectively we will need to do a better job than we have been.

    Too many students of color come to college but end up leaving before they can graduate.

    This achievement gap creates even more barriers to economic mobility, as evidenced by the widening income disparity in America between college graduates and non-graduates.

    I see it as our special obligation – and one of our greatest privileges – as educators to extend our reach across the full breadth of our society.

    Because talent is uniformly distributed across the populace. But opportunity most certainly is not.

    We have to examine this from every perspective, because it’s an issue that affects every aspect of the academy.

    This is challenging work, and it begins with ensuring that students can see people who look like them in the desks surrounding them, and in the professor at the front of classroom or lab.

    Assembling a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff is also important for the substance and effectiveness of our scholarship and teaching, and that is especially true in the STEM disciplines.

    Research shows that diverse work teams demonstrate greater success than homogenous teams. They create more innovative products and generate better ideas.

    A diverse academic community stimulates critical, reflective, and complex thinking, and enhances students’ problem-solving abilities.

    Because you have chosen to consider academic careers in a thoughtful way here at NextProf, you are already positioning yourselves to join that community, take on the challenges, and seize the opportunities.

    I hope that part of that includes fostering an environment that respects all forms of diversity.

    Diversity is essential, here at Michigan and throughout the academy.

    I firmly believe that academic institutions cannot achieve true excellence without leveraging the experiences and perspectives of the broadest possible diversity of students, faculty, and staff.

    Students and faculty and staff members of all experiences and backgrounds – regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, faith, economic status, or political perspective – should feel they have a place in a university community, and that their voices are being heard.

    That’s what universities are about, and you can uphold that expectation when you teach in your classrooms.

    A columnist in our student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, recently addressed this very issue.

    The columnist’s name is Haya Alfarhan, and she wrote that there should be a distinction between feeling safe and feeling comfortable in a classroom discussion.

    She drew an important difference between the two, and argued that the terms “safe” and “comfortable” cannot be used interchangeably.

    Her point was that while students should always be able to feel safe to discuss anything, they should not always feel comfortable when they do so.

    Because when discussion forces students out of their comfort zone, it eventually leads to productive exchange and valuable discourse.

    And that discourse is how we can confront the biggest challenges we face.

    I want to close by again thanking you for learning about the possibilities before you in higher education.

    This is a unique and transformative period in your life.

    You are stepping into an unpredictable world, and you have the talent to make that world better.

    As you consider what to do next, please remember that you have the potential to create new knowledge and make new discoveries – and that good scholarship always opens up more questions than answers.

    This is the environment you are entering.

    Be ambitious. Be responsible. Be relentless. And be an inspiration to those you will teach.

    Thank you very much.