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Universities, particularly those in the United States, have carefully crafted mission statements along with well-developed vision statements that are, as often as not, little more than rhetoric prepared to convince the masses both internally and externally of the projected value of the institution and the need for society to continue to support them. Clearly, it is hard to fault the university system since we have convinced ourselves, with some degree of certainty and plausible evidence, that if not essential they are at least contributory to the continuation of our social system, plus a necessary key ingredient in the future financial success of the youth that they educate and somewhat train.

The university system has continually evolved from its earliest start in this country as a unique way to mature selected youth while providing them with specialized skill sets and an access to a knowledge base without equal, as measured at any other time in history. This effort, that is assumed to be by conscious design, helps to encourage the creation of highly educated, well-rounded, and integrated citizens. At the same time it is also hoped that the system will identify and nourish those individuals who have a quicker and more earnest appreciation for the often mundane, but critical, elements of what allows our social framework to function and advance our governance and infrastructure support processes.

The system actually works quite well, even with little visionary planning and often with even less effective leadership. As a result we should celebrate its successes and cheer its many attributes and victories, particularly during our preferred sports season. Even with this, the institution that we know and love, and the one we commit a significant portion of our gross domestic profits to, may be less of an altruistic benefactor for our children and more of a self-involved institutional enigma.

We in the profession and on staff in these varied institutions are a product of our own designs, clearly affected by the process that educated us where very little from the real world ever really affects us, except the pursuit of financial support, at least not on any reasonable time scale. What we learn we thus teach, and how we learned it was the best for us and, therefore, it will be the best in the future. Note, again it probably is the most successful system for advanced education currently in use, or for that matter at any time in the past. The question might thus be, is the system really responsive to the current and future needs of society or, possibly, is it time to re-think or re-purpose its original mandate.

What we tend to remember and reflect on are the numerous and measurably great things that we celebrate when we call into focus the years spent in our chosen institution, one of those being our graduation or the same for our children. Fortunately there are a continuous number of these highly visible events within a university environment, which means there will always be something positive to brag about.

Hard to fault a process that has such a great number of events and accomplishments, at least for the uninitiated. Often these highly visible achievements are not in response to a designed or pre-established goal, and seldom with a set of measurable metrics. These activities are often more in response to historical precedence, custom and courtesy, and more significantly, its internal governance and rule-based processes, none of which are necessarily directed to the future needs of society or to the individuals being processed through its halls.

The university system does provide an educational opportunity to a rather large portion of our youth, at least in the United States, and there is a plethora of evidence that would support the need to continue the use and development of an advanced educational system. The real question is where does the education and training really occur and how best to develop those desirable, positive attributes that finally emerge? This is in contrast to the parts of the current system that are, by assumed custom, the best way to do the most for the greatest number of participants at the least cost.

Looking back to the beginning of this advanced educational system may shed some light on the current system. What exactly is the charter that we granted to this mammoth system that has such a potential impact on our society and its youth, and as importantly the financial debt incurred to get them through the process? We should also ask, exactly when did we grant this charter and were there any success metrics established when it was granted to determine whether we were, and are, getting what we need and for what we are paying dearly?

Interesting questions and ones that should be answered or, at least, it would seem that they should be. Most would say that, left unanswered, the system will continue to produce the educated professionals it has in most recent times. Even with this acceptance, the final question might then become what improvements could be realized if these questions became a mandate for the future? Would we produce more capable and better-directed citizens, and would those same students then be better equipped to advance society for the benefit of us all? Part II of this series will discuss the answers to these questions.

James Smith is professor and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at West Virginia University.

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