10/08/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Building a World Class University: Beyond The Numbers

The increasing demands for accountability of higher education institutions in the face of rising college costs, lackluster graduation rates and increasing student loan default rates have opened the doors for pressures for further regulation of higher education. Many institutions have begun reformulating their mission and vision statements to embody commitments to become world-class universities.

Defining "world-class university" has been the subject of much intellectual discourse and, if any institution would like to achieve world-class status, the famous phrase "I know it when I see it" does not provide sufficient guidance. Incidentally, it was the late Justice Potter Stewart who coined that phrase when the U.S. Supreme Court was attempting to define pornography.

Perhaps the most authoritative work on creating world-class universities is the one that Dr. Jamil Samli of the World Bank published in 2009. According to Dr. Samli, a world-class university has three distinguishing outcomes: first, highly sought graduates; second, leading-edge research; and third, dynamic knowledge and technology transfer. Dr. Samli attributed these outcomes to three complementary sets of factors at play in these universities. The first factor is a high concentration of talent, consisting of faculty, students, researchers and internationalization. The second factor requires favorable governance features that encourage leadership, strategic vision, innovation, and flexibility and that enable institutions to make decisions and manage resources without being encumbered by bureaucracy. The third factor consists of abundant resources to offer a rich learning environment and to conduct advanced research, with these resources coming from the public budget, endowment revenues, tuition fees and research grants. According to Dr. Samli, it is the dynamic interaction among these three factors that defines world-class universities.

Transforming a university into a world-class institution is quite a challenge. Perhaps the strategic problem should be defined differently. The concept of a world-class university reflects the norms and values of the world's dominant research universities, which are found principally in the United States and Western Europe. The American system of higher education has thrived because its diversity reflects the diversity and pluralism of American culture and society. Much of the criteria in these world university rankings are input-based not outcomes-based, and are associated with only one type of academic institution -- the research, doctorate, granting university. Characteristics like student-to-faculty ratio, research production and the presence of students and faculty from overseas account for 50 percent of the criteria.

When American universities participate in the meandering procession to follow M.I.T., Harvard and Yale, they miss out on leveraging the diversity of academic ideals, providing increased access to higher education, and pursuing opportunities to make college education affordable. If any given university pursues the path of overemphasizing the achievement of world-class status as measured by world university rankings, it will certainly divert energy and resources from its core mission of producing graduates with highly valued degrees, equipping them with the knowledge and character to lead and to serve.

Elite institutions certainly have a place in the higher education firmament, but we ought not limit ourselves to that model alone. At my institution -- which serves a diverse population of students who are largely the first in their families to attend college -- there's no place for elitism. We're diverse, eager and egalitarian, embracing values that dovetail with what I believe to be the appropriate mission for American higher education. Colleges and universities exist for one reason: to produce graduates with highly valued degrees who have the knowledge and the character to serve and lead. With that in mind, it's incumbent on colleges and universities to return to basics.

Focusing the curriculum on courses that are essential to a future career makes sense at the graduate level, but in my view, not before. There are benefits to a broader undergraduate liberal arts education, which is when students ought to be exploring their interests.

Businesspeople often say they can't understand why any undergraduate student would pursue a history major or take a philosophy course. But the students who study history or philosophy are those who end up in law school, just as those who pursue biology may end up in medical school. These are the courses that enrich the mind so that students become better business executives by being more critical in their thinking and more socially responsible. All of those things come from a liberal arts education, which is precisely why many professional degree programs have a strong foundation in liberal education.

I propose that higher education institutions focus on transforming themselves from a "good" university to a "great" university. This reminds me of the 1913 quote from the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as he wrote about the mission of law schools: "I say the business of a law school is not sufficiently describe when you merely say that it is to teach law, or to make lawyers. It is to teach law in the grand manner, and to make great lawyers." A great university is best known by the quality of its graduates.

Successful graduates are ambassadors for the university. They are innovative leaders who help people and communities flourish. They are known for being strong communicators, ethical thinkers and creative problem-solvers with a deep commitment to sustainability and social justice. They are knowledgeable in their disciplines and eager for collaboration and continuous learning. They integrate professional skills with global citizenship, entrepreneurial energy and intellectual curiosity. They make a difference in the lives of others.

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