Dr. Gordon Gee Discusses Transforming Higher Education
It was an exuberant homecoming as Dr. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University, came back to his alma mater, Teachers College, Columbia University, Ed.D. 1972, to give a talk titled “Transforming Higher Education.” Having held the top post at more colleges than anyone else, including two times at Ohio State, and twice being the highest-paid university president in the country, Gee’s journey since TC has hit some extraordinary peaks, but has also been somewhat controversial. In a highly criticized move, he left the presidency of Brown University after a brief stay to accept a substantially larger salary from Vanderbilt. As described by the Teachers College president, Dr. Susan Fuhrman, higher education today is also in a precarious state, facing budget and program cuts, retention problems, and the challenge of seeing other nations assume our leadership position.
According to Gee, who has 30 years of university experience, while the world has changed, “Education remains important, but it is lost, and has lost its way. American universities are broken.” Universities are not a business, he advised. They are the cultural and social centers of our nation, which relies on an educated citizenry for its future. Creativity should be the centerpiece. He remarked that on a trip to China the minister of education repeatedly asked how we teach ingenuity and creativity, showing an understanding of the importance of learning how to think. He noted that, formerly, the richest men in the world were industrialists but, today, the richest person — Bill Gates — is concerned with ideas and their potential.
The economic recession and general turmoil provide “an opportunity to think about change,” Gee said. We need to recapture our ingenuity and nurture the talent that will sustain us. No Child Left Behind does a disservice, he said. Students may learn how to take a test, but we do not know how to measure creativity. Future universities need to be more unified, creating partnerships within an institution and between institutions. He cited community colleges as important places that must be included in education networks. Gee explained that leadership is essential during the change process and suggested that small, selective institutions, like Teachers College, are well-suited to the role. They can set high standards and train individuals who will take charge in other institutions. He advised leaders to have thick skins and good senses of humor. Laugh at yourself, or “get burned out or burned up,” he cautioned. Create change, live with it, and move on.
Gee also said that he thinks tenure can be positive as a way of recognizing serious worth if frequent tenure reviews are in place, and that the value of technology depends on whether “we control it, or it controls us, a battle we’re not necessarily winning.” He is concerned about the current “scattershot” tech approach and wants more attention paid to content and quality. He questions distance learning, saying human contact, whether in the classroom or in informal settings, is essential. On the SAT question Gee advises that rather than emphasizing test scores in assessing college-readiness, “the real determinant of who will succeed is who is willing to work hard.”
After listening to President Gee, Shannon Gilkey, a TC student who taught for five years and earned a master’s at Oxford, was most interested in the idea of more interdisciplinary cooperation, explaining that this idea is being advocated in higher education in England. John Allegrante, a professor of health education and deputy provost at TC, also liked the idea of partnering, in his case, with the community. He believes that, as it tries to reform itself, higher education has a crucial stake in how the public schools are performing as well as in the health of America’s children. #