At the crux of my speech were three central arguments:
First, the operating environment at universities has been permanently altered. Gone are the days of peaceful academe, due to the loss of trust in institutions, the demise of mainstream media in favor of peer-to-peer social sources, and the pressures of innovation and budget cuts at state and federal levels. The university is under the greatest set of pressures since the Vietnam and civil rights protests of the 1960s and 70s, although today’s issues are vastly different, ranging from sexual assault to demanding the renaming of university buildings based on a new view of historical figures.
Second, the university is now a sitting duck waiting for issues to arise. I prefer a fundamentally different approach. The university must re-engage. It must be the Fifth Estate in global governance. It is the one place for objective and truthful discussion, without financial pressure or short-term thinking, on topics such as sustainability, inequality and jobs of the future. The university can and should be a convener and a solutions creator.
Last, to implement this important shift, the university must adapt its structure. There should be an office of engagement sitting above the communications, marketing, public affairs and community relations units. The engagement officer should be the conscience and connector for the school. This person should be reporting to the university president at the same level as the director of development, CFO, or general counsel.
The university must fill a void in global governance left by the loss of trust in government and business. And university presidents must speak out publicly as leaders in change for society. Some of the best examples of university leaders doing this today include Bob Zimmer of the University of Chicago on the future of cities and Jack DeGioia of Georgetown on race.
I’d like to thank Kate Linkous, Stacey Zolt Hara, Dave Demarest, Christine Heenan, and Greg St. Claire for their help in putting this speech together.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.