Mission Accomplished – Do alma maters matter?

I completed my undergraduate education at the University of Sheffield amidst the rolling hills of Yorkshire, England. Unbeknownst to me at the time (undergraduates tend not to worry themselves with such matters), the overarching aims of my alma mater were:

“to educate others and ourselves and to learn through doing so, thereby improving the world.”

Since graduating, I have been associated with several other institutions, including a brief stint at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. They see their mission as an effort to:

“create and share knowledge through outstanding research and education, and thus benefit society.”

Instantly, one can see the similarities between the statements. Indeed, what they share is their desire to share.  Both institutions would be classified in the top bracket of research quality (R1) under the US tier system, yet both emphasize the importance of inclusivity and disseminating information to a wider audience.  Gone are the days of ivory tower professors enjoying a castaway level of isolation, of researchers reluctant to publish for fear of their discoveries being subsumed by rival academics; we now find ourselves in the age of ‘publish or perish’. It is becoming increasingly clear however, that even this is not enough to provide societal benefits. My grandmother for instance, does not subscribe to the Journal of Molecular Biology. Clearly for these mission statements to be achieved, academics cannot stop at the primary literature, and must seek an active role in providing this information to the public.  In the UK at least, higher education is still largely restricted to the wealthy. I am curious to know whether the recent hike in university fees in England ($4,500pa to $13,000pa) had a noticeable impact on mission statements and the relative importance placed on outreach. In contrast, NL universities have not seen a comparable increase, but $4,500pa is still out of reach for many people. I am well aware that any unfamiliar American readers will be bordering on the hysterical over these paltry sums, but the lack of affordable education is a salient problem the world over.

With this in mind, I recall an oft-cited quote: “Those that have the privilege to know have the duty to act, and in that action are the seeds of new knowledge.”, often attributed to one A. Einstein. For me, one of the most important skills imparted as an undergraduate was critical thinking; specifically to value evidence above all substantiation of claims. As such, I endeavored to track down the book or interview in which the Austrian patent clerk had made such a remark. Alas, the earliest known use dated to 2001, a mere four decades after his passing! We must presume then, that the statement was attributed to Albert purely for credibility reasons… never mind, it’s still a decent quote that better captures the essence of these mission statements. Whilst I commend both universities for emphasizing inclusivity in their goals, I am disappointed to not find any mention of the critical analysis skills that allow people to teach and think for themselves. This would certainly be more explicit on my mission statement.

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