Broadly and idealistically, I think the purpose of the university is to teach students how to think critically and become life-long learners. Learning how to learn and use that knowledge to accomplish tasks and solve problems are two of the major purposes of higher education in general. If students embrace their education and adopt these goals, then society benefits from analytical, educated members who can participate in both political decisions and economic development.
Though I think that the above goals or purposes should be integral to the university system, they are difficult to quantify and require buy-in from instructors, students, administrators, and politicians to possibly be successful. Ideas about the purposes of the university and who it is there to educate change over time, but the 21st century university has to be hyper-focused on the number of students they admit and graduate as well as the amount of grant money and other external funding its faculty are receiving. The video about the history of Virginia Tech shows a great example of this development from the late 19th century to the 21st. Tensions about funding and administrative attention to maximizing what they see as the purpose of the university and what it can offer the academic, economic, and social communities are inevitable and do not necessarily mean that the university is not or cannot fulfill the purpose I see for higher education in general.
However, those tensions do raise issues that can threaten the impact of the university through many facets. In “The 21st Century University: Purpose, Problems, and Promise,” Charles M. Vest offered that the purpose of the research university is to create opportunity for graduates, industry, and the community through economics. I was encouraged to see that Vest’s purposes seem to align with mine, and his “6 Basic Lessons from the 21st Century University” provide some directives for seeing those purposes carried out. While his lessons are not quantifiable matrixes for assessment of higher education, they can be used to offer some goals for reflective administrators who want to improve the quality of their universities while also collecting data to communicate those gains. Though funding will always be important to administrators, Vest’s closing comments about universities who embrace 21st century technological improvements while maintaining or creating high-quality education provide a path for other institutions of higher education to follow.
Honestly, Vest’s presentation made me feel somewhat more hopeful about the role of the university as a force for good in the world. Being an optimist about academia and education can be exhausting, so I really appreciated seeing someone promoting a concept of higher education that would make me proud. Throughout my education, I have been presented with many different, possible purposes for higher education. Some were simple(i.e. to make more money), while others were more nuanced (to become a more well-rounded and cultured person). Personally, I see my education as a way to continue to challenge the way I think and push myself to develop as a learner. Every semester, I see how my courses invite me to complicate my view of the world around me and teach me better ways to accomplish tasks and solve problems set before me. Not unlike Vest’s purpose for the research university, I see the ultimate purpose of my life to see and execute opportunities that make things better for myself as well as those around me and my community at large. Simply put, I want to decrease world suck, and I see helping to educate others as a way to accomplish that goal.