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Ivory towers no more.

THOSE WHO HAVE STUDIED the history of higher education know that many aspects of American universities are based on the Greco-Roman model of "the academy." In ancient Greece and Rome, these academies were usually located in rural areas, far from large cities. The reasoning was that these remote locales kept young scholars' minds focused on great theories and philosophies, not on the day-to-day business and the discussion of narrow issues in a metropolis like Rome or Athens.

Some remnants of this belief system continued over thousands of years (and miles) to U.S. institutions of higher education. As recently as the mid-20th century, the term "ivory tower" was not used derisively; it accurately described a university holding true to the ancient ideal of studying important ideas far removed from everyday concerns.

As a university president, however, I can tell you that the assumptions of that belief system are gone forever. Universities can no longer afford to be "ivory towers," for many reasons. We in higher education are more accountable and responsible to the larger community today than we ever have been, and demands for that accountability and responsibility are only going to increase in coming years.

At Ball State University and other public universities, one reason for this accountability is obvious. While the percentage of these universities' total budgets coming from state legislatures has been decreasing steadily over the past 25 years or so, the legislative oversight has stayed relatively constant. The general public also is demanding increased transparency in our financial planning, especially as it affects student tuition, room, board, and fees. As universities prepare for a future with even scarcer resources and even stiffer competition, these public and governmental pressures are sure to increase.

A key component of our new strategic plan is providing each Ball State student an immersive learning experience. We do this not only because we believe active learning side-by-side with a professor provides the best education for young people about to enter a global society full of constant change and technological advancement. We also do it because it provides important services to people around our state and across the country, demonstrating our accountability and responsibility to others.

We take seriously our role as Indiana's entrepreneurial university. As one example of immersive learning, Ball State has offered its faculty and students to organizations around the state through its Building Better Communities initiative, designed to build strong partnerships with the larger community. Last year, more than 130 projects were completed by these faculty-student teams as they worked in 60 Indiana counties.

As part of this initiative, students working with a faculty mentor provided an innovative solution, using information technology, to a problem the Indianapolis Airport was experiencing, resulting in a savings of thousands of dollars. Students created new software to provide more effective training for Logansport police officers. They worked with residents in the tiny community of Reynolds to plan for an influx of new agribusinesses.

The Building Better Communities initiative spurs economic development and quality-of-life improvements around the state, extending Ball State's strengths in applied research and hands-on learning. That initiative is just one of the many ways our university is responding to demands to lead, not just locally but in the larger community.

More and more universities are investing in technology transfer, and not only for economic reasons. These programs also demonstrate the university's willingness to share its intellectual breakthroughs for the common good. In the past year at Ball State, two technology transfer programs have brought real benefits for hundreds in our community and around the state. A company called Educational Informatics is using software developed in our Teachers College that interactively assesses student learning, no matter the grade level. Meanwhile, Cardinal Advantage Motion Analysis has built a new, 1,500-square-foot facility near our campus. A partnership between Ball State's Biomechanics Lab and Midwest Health Strategies is developing treatments for human motion injuries using digital, three-dimensional technology.

Community relations at campuses like Ball State long ago moved past some of the "town-gown" issues of decades ago, ones that seem almost quaint today. Universities are seen as economic engines for the community and active leaders on important social and environmental issues. Community leaders are increasingly turning to the local university for planning expertise and technological leadership that impact that community for years--maybe generations--to come.

For several years, Ball State has been the second-largest employer in the city of Muncie, Ind. Indeed, we are the second-largest employer in Delaware Count. Several other large, public universities in this state and around the country are among the top three employers in their respective areas. Even as an increasing number of American corporate jobs are moving abroad, more and more young people from around the world are drawn to universities in the United States to study, making us desirable places for employment in ways reminiscent of the corporate headquarters or the factory from only 25 years ago.

But with this role as leading employer come pressures that college presidents from a century ago would not recognize. Some institutions are experiencing budget shortfalls and staff cutbacks, and their presidents must consider the economic effects these will have not just on campus but also on the surrounding community. Thankfully, this is not the case here at Ball State, but we are always cognizant of how our decisions about the future direction of the university affect those around us.

Calls for universities to be leaders on social issues also have increased, far beyond providing cultural programs and opening our facilities for community events. At Ball State, we are working very hard to develop a vibrant campus culture that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds and cultures, not just because it is important for our own future but also because it has an impact on the community culture that surrounds us. Other issues many college leaders must consider include providing the technological infrastructure necessary not only for student and faculty use but also to serve as the community's technological hub; the many ethical dimensions involved in scientific testing and research; and community concerns about how college investments affect various social causes' and issues of fairness.

Universities also are called to be environmental leaders in the community. On behalf of Ball State, I was a charter signatory to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which calls for us to create an action plan moving toward climate neutrality. More than 300 other colleges and universities have joined in this commitment since I signed it in January.

Ball State's participation continues our leadership in sustainability at all levels of the institution. We have the longest-standing "green" committee in Indiana's higher education community, and signing this document reinforces our commitment to constructing "green" buildings, upgrading our heating plant (which will soon be able to burn biofuels), and encouraging the community use of public transportation. These steps are so important that they are part of the university's strategic plan--but they also are what the larger community has come to expect of Ball State based on our leadership in this area.

At Ball State, we are embracing these expectations, challenging as they can sometimes be. Through immersive learning and other aspects of our strategic plan, we are providing the best education we can for our students, and expertise and service to communities around the state. Much of my time is spent anticipating and investigating future opportunities for that same blending of purposes.

The days of relative isolation in the "ivory tower" are over forever. Universities must become even more accountable and responsible community members in the future. College presidents must continue to build meaningful, lasting partnerships with state and federal officials, as well as community leaders. Only then can we collectively discover the best solutions to emerging challenges we face in our constantly changing world.

By Jo Ann M. Gora, president, Ball State University (Ind.).
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Title Annotation:THE State of HIGHER EDUCATION
Author:Gora, Jo Ann M.
Publication:University Business
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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