Anytime I come across a prompt that allows you to “change one thing you’d like about…” I always visualize someone swishing a magic wand, saying some magic words, and the change occurring with a *poof*. As I thought about higher education, and a change I’d like to see there, I landed on a single idea – removing the “Ivory Tower” label often applied to institutions of higher education, especially those institutions that are most selective, most expensive, and where the presumably most brilliant minds available teach and conduct research.
Now, I want to make sure the nuance of the view I’m hoping to express here isn’t lost right off the bat. I’m very glad and thankful for research done by universities that isn’t in response to a specifically identified need. Curiosity, exploration, and experimentation are hallmarks of university research and are incredibly valuable parts of innovation that drive humanity forward. In no way, shape, or form am I arguing to completely stop that value-added tradition. Instead, I’m arguing that universities need a better balance of research goals to show that the “Ivory Tower” label is unfounded based on the actual research conducted by university researchers.
An example of the perception problem university researchers have can be seen in a clip from Captain America: Civil War. In the movie, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downy Jr) provides funding for MIT students to conduct their research. An MIT faculty member approaches Tony after the announcement to pitch his research idea.
Here’s what I think would need to happen to help change the perception problem. First, university research should be expected to be more responsive to the needs of the public than it currently is, especially research conducted at public universities. Researchers should work collaboratively with key external stakeholders to develop research questions that need to be answered. Second, and partially related to the first point, is that there should be an expectation that researchers actively seek to share their research with key stakeholders and not only seek to share their research through journal article publications and at academic conferences. The idea of transferability should be considered before conducting research. Third, this type of work should be considered as part of the tenure process. Not every researcher should be expected to come up with something completely novel in their field. Holding that expectation can lead to data manipulation, fraud, and – worst of all – research that has a very limited hope of ever making an impact with people. We should hold our research to a higher standard of applicability.
I think that the work will require more than just those three things, but this is where I’d start. So I’m picking up my 11-inch spruce with phoenix feather core wand, making a swish and flick motion while declaring “Expelliarmus” (not a Harry Potter fan, it’s OK, just click here), and saying good-bye to the “Ivory Tower” label and mentality. I think both higher education and humanity will be better off for it.