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Higher education must innovate to keep up with the evolving economy, students’ financial constraints and the need for greater public trust in the sciences, National Academy of Sciences president Marcia McNutt said Tuesday in a speech at Oregon State University.
McNutt was the keynote speaker at OSU’s 2023 University Day celebration, an annual event to highlight faculty, staff and graduate student accomplishments and to herald the start of the new academic year.
More than 430 people attended McNutt’s keynote lecture on campus, and a recording of the lecture will be available on the University Day website.
A geophysicist by training, McNutt previously served as the editor-in-chief of the Science family of academic journals and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, where her tenure included overseeing the agency’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
Her speech explored how the role and perception of higher education in the U.S. has changed since the 1970s, specifically where it has lagged behind other industries in how it responds to the current needs of consumers, including undergraduate and graduate students, researchers and the public at large.
“Institutions are not scaling capacity to demand. We’re still stuck in the state where students have to devote four years to being here on campus doing their work, and many people can’t afford the time or the money,” McNutt said. “We need to rethink schedules to deliver lifelong learning. We can rethink the academic calendar to cater to those who have jobs and families and homes.”
She discussed ongoing challenges facing higher education, including climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, COVID-19 and other health emergencies, increasing inequality, misinformation and declining public trust in researchers.
“Educating students to be critical thinkers is one of the most important things we have to do,” McNutt said. “They especially need to learn to think critically about anything they read that supports their bias.”
She sees both promise and risk in the growth of artificial intelligence, saying it has the potential to lower the cost of research and increase efficiency, but must be properly configured to avoid perpetuating biases.
Training academics to communicate with the public and making their research accessible is also a crucial task for universities going forward, she said, particularly in light of how trust in science has been rapidly eroding and how this has impacted the pandemic response.
“We have to, as university researchers, build trust with the public,” McNutt said. “We can be the most competent people in the world but if the public doesn’t think we’re acting in their best interest, then we’ve got a problem.”
Part of reinvigorating the perception of higher education as a public good includes rethinking what is most valued at universities, she said.
She called for institutions to move away from the “publish or perish” model and think instead about the impact of their scholarly work; how they steward public resources; how they communicate the implications of their discoveries; and how well they enable graduates to improve their lives.
“A fundamental tenet of biology is, ‘If you’re not evolving, you’re dying,’” McNutt said.
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