Jane Dammen McAuliffe gives the Commencement address at the Graduate School Commencement ceremony
Thank you for the extraordinary privilege of being with you today. I was delighted when Dean [Laura] Carlson asked me to speak at your commencement but even more delighted as I began to learn more about you and your achievements.
My own years as a graduate student at the University of Toronto were among the happiest of my life. They were also among the most hectic. By the time I began graduate work, my husband — who is with us today — and I were the parents of two small children, and a third was born while I was preparing my thesis.
But as I try to look back on those years through your eyes, I realize that they must seem like the Dark Ages. The university library had only card catalogues; Xerox machines were a novelty, and we banged out our theses on typewriters that now rank as museum pieces. Yet, our academic world was a reasonably stable realm. We were sure someone would recognize the value of our hard-earned graduate degrees and would hire us to replicate the lives of our professors: to teach large lecture courses and small seminars, to continue our current research projects and secure funding for new ones.
But the higher education terrain that you face is far more turbulent than the one that greeted me 30 years ago. From frequent conversations with the younger, pre-tenure scholars in residence at the Library of Congress, I know that turbulence feels rather fraught and frightening. While I recognized that many of you will not seek faculty positions, I suspect that all of you will keep close connections with the world of higher education and will continue to care about its future prospects. If I can leave you with one thought this morning, it’s this: I firmly believe that you are graduating into the most exciting period in the history of higher education.
Yes, I realize that is a big statement and I also realize that colleges and universities in this country, and beyond, are beset with problems. As a dean and then a president, I was frequently mired in them. Across the country we have politicians cutting budgets and questioning the value of basic research. At institutions both big and small, we struggle to support our students and to fund our faculty. And there is no end to university bashing. Each spring produces a new batch of books about the crisis in higher education. A few years ago it was “Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?” and “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” This year’s titles include “College Disputed: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education” and “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.” Such publications are perfectly timed to arrive on the market just as high school seniors are stressing about admissions and their parents are trying to decide if they must refinance the house to meet tuition payments.
So there is no end of woe in the world of higher education. And yet within the last few years, we’ve begun to see the glimmers of a future for colleges and universities that will be transformative. There are lots of ideas and innovations fueling this transformation, but I’ll focus on only two:
The first is what I’ll call the learner at the center: Rather than fitting students to our current schedules and structures, university learning will become more distributed and more individually directed. Highly motivated students are already racing through the noncredit, online courses offered by the likes of edX and Coursera, courses like those that Notre Dame launched this spring. They are placing into upper-division work and, in the spirit of a liberal arts education, they are sampling subjects without fear of grade-point consequences. The flip side of this is talent identification. Stories of the Pakistani girl coming in tops with an online physics course or the boy from Mongolia who aced one on computer circuits have inspired admissions officers across this continent and set off a talent hunt.
In another development, data analytics is reshaping academic advising. Some universities are getting smarter about tracking student progress and catching students before, as one of my associate deans at Georgetown used to say, “they wash up on shore at the end of the semester like dead fish.”
If new forms of online learning are decoupling the class from the classroom, competency-based programs are dismantling credit hours as the currency of degrees. For more than a century, time metrics – semesters and credit hours — have been the building blocks of our educational structures, the way we unitize knowledge, the way we define degrees, the way we assign faculty workloads. Now we are seeing the first competency-based programs to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education for federal financial aid. Such programs shift the focus from time spent to learning achieved. In effect, they say, “Show me what you’ve learned. I don’t care how quickly or slowly you learn as long as you can ultimately demonstrate mastery of these areas of knowledge and those skills and abilities.”
The second big trend is the emergence of globe-spanning institutions and networks. Examples of this are proliferating. Earlier this month I visited the campus in Qatar shared by a consortium of universities including Cornell, Georgetown and Northwestern. You doubtless know that NYU has built operations in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, while Yale has opened a college in Singapore. Not all universities will build new campuses, but many are rapidly expanding student and faculty exchanges, developing co-taught, transnational courses and creating dual degree programs. As a university with a long-standing international focus and footprint, Notre Dame has now taken the extraordinary step of creating a new School of Global Affairs.
Big questions confront both of the trends that I’ve described, the learner at the center and globe-spanning institutions. Going global forces us to address pressing issues of human rights and academic freedom. As a board member of the American Council on Education, I spent hours in vigorous debates with other presidents about both the upside and downside of university internationalization.
Looking at learner-centered education, it’s fair to say that the new experiments in online and competency-based courses are way over-hyped and there are no common standards or quality controls. Many experiments have been launched and many have floundered.
Given these concerns, why would I continue to assert that we are on the cusp of the most exciting period in the history of higher education? My answer is really one single word: learning. These new trends will enhance student learning. They will help students dive faster and deeper into new areas; they will allow students to progress at a pace that suits their individual abilities and interests; they will connect students from around the globe on both physical and virtual campuses; they will offer access and opportunity to those who are currently shut out of any form of higher education.
But the promise of learner-centered pedagogy and of global networks of learning will only succeed if they reinforce rather than undermine the core functions of our best educational institutions: the nurture and formation of human persons, the unfettered search for knowledge on every possible front and the persistent pursuit of public benefit and social good. These core functions constitute the measuring stick with which we can assess all the disruptive technologies and all the transnational initiatives that we face today and that we will face tomorrow.
As graduates of Notre Dame, you are particularly well-equipped to wield/utilize that measuring stick. You have been part of an academic community that takes student formation seriously, that even speaks of it in vocational terms. You have undertaken research in an institution that values the search for truth, that can look to a legacy of philosophical and theological reflection that finds beauty in that search far beyond its utilitarian benefits. And you have chosen to conduct your scholarly endeavors in a Catholic university that cares, one whose commitment to social justice and human betterment infuses all that it does.
During your graduate years, you have lived and worked, played and prayed in a university that both embodies and transmits the abiding values of a student-centered research university at its best. That experience will be your touchstone as you help to shape the fast-changing future of American higher education.
I would like to conclude with a snapshot from a place far from where you now sit. Just two weeks ago, I gave the commencement speech at a women’s university in Saudi Arabia. Three hundred young women processed into the auditorium wearing head scarfs and mortar boards. Flags to the fore, the procession moved to the pace of powerful drumming. As I looked out at the assembled gathering, I realized that the differences I expected to see were erased by the similarities. I saw the core shining through: the excited graduates, the proud faculty, the beaming parents and the strong sense that the university education of these young women was a gift to their nation and to the world.
What you share with these young Saudi women is the blessing, the extraordinary blessing, of an excellent education in an outstanding institution. What you also share with them is the privilege, the providential privilege, of now turning that blessing to the benefit of a better future for us all.