Updates - From the Office of the NYIT President
Oct 12 2011
Poetry for Engineers: The American Educational Model

Good morning.  I am delighted to see you again and have this opportunity to share some news and ideas with an American flavor.  I’ve spent most of my life in higher education and it’s a wonderful place.

But it hasn’t always been the same place. The Greek philosopher Heracleitus said, “You can’t step twice into the same river,” and that’s true of higher education as well. Yet for centuries, it was just barely true. Higher education was more like a fish tank than a river. Today we not only step in the river, but we’re riding the current, and the voyage is exhilarating.

In the United States today, over 18 million students attend college. Many parents now expect a college education for their children, and it is a precondition for a huge array of jobs in today’s knowledge economy.   The best jobs demand professional degrees. To some extent, higher education has become a utility, like a power company. Most people can get it.

That is a sea change.  Let me tell you about that change.

Just 200 years ago, college was an exotic realm. Instructors in the West actually taught in code. They used Latin, a language dead for over a thousand years. Higher education was costly, a world of the wealthy. And most scholars felt they were simply caretakers of information, custodians of knowledge that was considered “a finite and limited substance, inherited from the past.”  Professors saw themselves as simply handing knowledge down from past to future.  

Then came the shock of the 19th century. Modern market economies suddenly arose. For instance, the railroad let urban people buy fresh vegetables from far away. So more people moved to cities. The telegraph let companies expand nationwide. Before, they’d been confined to one or two towns. The rotary printing press brought us news at a price everyone could afford. We knew more and we knew it faster. And then Thomas Edison developed his marvelous inventions and we created the electrical grid. Life was accelerating — very fast.

To understand today’s university, you need to know about the writings of a theologian from Great Britain, John Henry Cardinal Newman. In 1859, Newman said a university is first a place for teaching universal knowledge; and second, a place where knowledge is created. So those are the two main purposes of most modern universities: teaching and research – sharing knowledge and creating knowledge.

Throughout that century, higher education evolved. English replaced Latin, so knowledge became more accessible. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, which gave a state 30,000 acres of federal land to sell to finance public universities. In the final years of the 19th century, as society grew more and more specialized, so did colleges. Specialties like chemistry and physics spread through the curriculum, and for the first time doctors had to receive a professional education.

But even in 1900, we needed many more students. In that year, fewer than 3 percent of all people between 18 and 24 attended college. And out of a total population of 76 million, only 382 got a doctoral degree. Virtually all were men, and they wouldn’t even fill a good-sized theater today.
For though America was urbanizing, it was still agricultural. You didn’t need a diploma to till the soil, or to do most other jobs either. Incomes were low and college was costly. So, many people still saw higher education as an ornament for the wealthy and a waste of time for everyone else.

Back then, we should have stressed education, as you are doing here in China. But we were slow to see the bounty. For instance, many people still glorified the “self-made man,” the man who became a household name without ever going to college or working for others. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were the prototypes, amassing vast fortunes without a diploma. Five U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, had no college education. Later, Walt Disney revolutionized entertainment without one.

In fact, some even worried that we might get “over-educated.” What a great term. We would know too much. So we’d be at a disadvantage next to the uneducated, whose ignorance would better equip them to deal with modern society.

Things began to change in the 20th century.  We continued to build upon the history and tradition of our colleges and universities, but we started transforming them too.  Science and technology expanded and the knowledge base grew.

It took some time for that to happen.  By 1937, just before World War II, more Americans were attending college, but the percentage was still small. Only 15% of 18- to 20-year-olds were in the classroom. And most of them still came from wealthier families.

However, after the middle of the 20th century, famous Americans without a diploma became as rare.  And a key reason was the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill gave servicemen and -women who had fought in World War II easy terms to attend college. So suddenly, for the first time in history, people from ordinary backgrounds surged into the universities. Enrollment almost doubled. It jumped from 1.5 million in 1940 to almost 2.7 million in 1950.

A lot of people began to notice this growth.

The chancellor of the University of Syracuse called the veterans quote “by far the ablest students American college instructors have ever been privileged to teach” unquote. In 1947, the New York Times stated quote “Here is the most astonishing fact in the history of American higher education. The G.I.s are hogging the honor rolls and dean’s lists; they are walking away with the highest marks in all of their courses” unquote.

The G.I. Bill showed us what we were missing. And it permanently changed our notion of who could benefit from college. We had far more talented citizens than we realized, and so the majority of our colleges and universities were founded after 1950, and most of our degrees were created after that time as well, to meet the demands of the knowledge economy.

In America, in the half-century afterwards, the children of those veterans, the Baby Boomers, enrolled in an unprecedented flood. And higher education expanded to accommodate them. Opportunities opened for men and women of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities. In 1940, just 5 percent of adults had a bachelor’s degree; by 2006, 28 percent did, and another 26 percent had completed some college. Today 18 million people attend colleges in the U.S., including 37 percent of the 18-to-24 year-olds.

Meanwhile, higher education moved from the edge of society to near the center. A college degree, an in an increasing number of cases an advanced degree, is now essential for people working in a spectrum of fields, from childcare to cattle-raising to business management. We know far more about such topics than we did in 1900. And since better-educated people do better work, employers want them.

At the same time, the institutional structure grew more diverse. We saw the rise of the research university and the comprehensive state college. We saw community colleges spring up everywhere in the 1970s, with open enrollments and low tuition that served almost everyone. We saw governments and institutions provide massive financial aid for students.

And colleges long ago stopped being just archives of knowledge. They are now powerhouse generators of insight, of scientific findings, of breakthroughs that change our lives. They have unveiled the mysteries of the genetic code, developed molecule-sized machines, discovered dark energy, and deciphered the cause of cancer and other illnesses. Colleges are vital to economic growth today. We are a knowledge economy, and China is fast becoming one, too. In other words, education is our greatest national resource, and it’s yours as well.

Let’s pause here to take a look at our university, NYIT, founded in 1955.

Let me now lay out for you the basic contours of education in the United States. Most surprisingly, perhaps, the U.S, Department of Education has little sway over colleges, beyond funding research and student loans. Most foreign university systems are subject to oversight by the Ministry of Education, but in the United States, oversight takes place at the state and local level. And even there, it is lax. Colleges have enormous independence.

If no governmental body sets curricula and learning standards, how do potential students know that a certain college is worth attending? The answer is: private accreditation agencies. They set criteria and conduct the reviews that universities must meet.

And colleges need this stamp of approval, because otherwise their degrees plunge in value and students shy away. Employers are quite reasonably suspicious of a degree from an unaccredited college. It can mean anything.

The U.S. system is flexible. For instance, students can easily change academic majors well into their college careers. In many European countries, on the other hand, students have to choose their career paths at the end of middle school, at the age of 14 or so. They are barely adolescents, and they have committed to specialized high schools and future professions. So if a French student decides to pursue law instead of medicine, he must start over. In the United States, the shift is relatively fluid.

Despite the lack of regulatory structure, the system is surprisingly well integrated. College credits are usually transferable to other schools, so Americans can leave and reenter college throughout their lifetimes. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for classrooms to have a mix of young people, older ones in mid-career, and retired folks who are simply looking for self-enrichment.

Even with the relatively seamless integration among schools, we see several types of colleges in this loose system. They include research universities, comprehensive universities, liberal arts schools, and community colleges. There are also notable distinctions between public and private universities.

Consider research universities, which hardly existed before World War II. But then the federal government started pumping millions of research dollars into them. And by the 1970s they were the hub of the nation’s science structure. A few of them have spun off whole local economies. Silicon Valley emerged from Stanford, for instance.

Comprehensive universities focus more on teaching and offer degree programs across a spectrum of fields. They are often part of a state system, and students at these colleges can earn diplomas not just in areas like archeology, political science, and electrical engineering, but in fields that draw from many disciplines, such as like ethnic studies, criminology, and oceanography. Professors in these institutions also do research, and the line between these colleges and research universities can blur.

Liberal arts colleges provide a generalist education. You can find them everywhere, but they tend to be small, rural, and often rather exclusive. They too focus on teaching, but they lack the array of majors of the comprehensive universities. The idea is breadth rather than depth, context more than concentration.
Community colleges are the polar opposites of the old, elite, Latin universities. Anyone with a high school degree can get in and tuition is low. They are higher education for the universe, and in fact they enroll almost half of all American undergraduates. They are typically two-year institutions and act as an up-ramp to four-year colleges. Many public universities let students automatically transfer from community colleges.

We can classify U.S. universities in another way, by their source of funding. They are public or private. From the outside, the distinction can be invisible, and students move easily back and forth between them. But the funding difference has consequences.

In the United States, every state has at least one public university, thanks to the land-grant acts of 1862. That legislation also ordained that public colleges teach topics related to agriculture and quote “the mechanical arts,” those useful in factories. In other words, let the other schools teach Cicero, and we will focus on the present. Many of these public universities actually began as training schools for teachers and eventually grew into complete colleges.

Public universities are much cheaper than private ones — just as you’d expect when so much money comes from the states. Society needs well-educated people, so this investment pays for itself.

Our public universities can seem more impersonal than private ones. They are usually bigger — sometimes much bigger. They often have larger classes, with less individualized instruction and interaction with faculty.

The majority of the great names in American higher education are private not-for-profit institutions of higher education.  You know them — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Brown, Chicago, NYU, Columbia, MIT…how about NYIT.  And the list of world-class private not for profit American colleges and universities goes on.  

There is also an emerging class of next generation universities, of which NYIT is a leader:  the 21st-century global university.

Global universities come in different forms.  In the simplest, they can have “friendship alliances” with others across the world.  They all can sign agreements and exchange ideas and faculty.  And that’s good. Moving up a level, you find institutions that have dual-degree programs and branch campuses.

Finally, there is the highest level:  Tier 1.  Tier 1 is the true global university. It offers one diploma and one curriculum at more than one global location. It is higher education spread across the planet.  It describes NYIT.
A Tier 1 university has a single administration guiding it and it uses the same set of standards and outcomes everywhere.  Students, faculty, and ideas stream back and forth as if borders don’t exist.  Virtual or distance-learning classrooms unite students from all parts of the planet.  And many layers of perspective ensure that everyone respects local viewpoints, and that global understandings evolve.

Tier 1 universities like NYIT create true citizens of the world.  Their graduates have a deep and broad education, and they have connections with peers and faculty all across the planet.

As a global university, NYIT is:

•     A connected and networked community
•     A training ground for highly competitive careers in the global economy
•     A worldwide network for the free and wide flow of students, faculty, and research  
•     A source of globally competent citizens   
Let’s look a little closer at what makes an American college distinctive, again with NYIT as the model.

First, there is a core curriculum. At NYIT, we devote about a quarter of all classes to general knowledge. This curriculum is an updated solution for addressing the skills that all employers today are looking for—skills in communications, literacy, critical and analytical thinking, an interdisciplinary mindset, ethical and civic engagement, a global perspective, and knowledge of the nature and process of the arts and sciences.

Now, you may ask — and I hear it all the time — what does general knowledge matter if you are certain you want to be an engineer?

I have many answers. To start with, you are more than an engineer. You are a person. And general education gives you the context of the world you live in. It tells you about the people for whom you’ll be engineering, and in our global society, you may work for many unexpected clients. It tells you about the places where you’ll be working. And it opens vistas for you. Want to start your own company? You will need to know a lot more than engineering.

Second, when you walk into an American classroom for the first time, you may notice the atmosphere is unlike anything you are accustomed to. You may notice the informality at once. For instance, in some classes, students may address their professors casually, and in fact some instructors let students call them by their first names. Students may also develop social relationships with their instructors, such as going out for coffee. Even in these cases, the typical teacher-student relationship resumes back in the classroom.

Third, professors expect students to ask if they don’t understand something. It not only saves the student time, but it tells teachers how well they are communicating. And professors respect students who work to fully understand the material. This kind of interaction is simply common. I am sure you know that in the knowledge-based economy in which we live, a college degree has become almost a requirement for a successful professional life. And NYIT graduates have an exceptional record of employment in their professions. That is because an information-rich, digitally-saturated society puts a premium on people who can synthesize information from many sources and who have developed the ability to think critically, with breadth, depth, and insight about the world around them.

Can you successfully intertwine this style of higher education with the Chinese style? Absolutely, and the proof is in the numbers. Those numbers have to do with the students from Nanjing who earned an NYIT degree last year, in our first graduating class.  Less than four months after graduation, they have already experienced astounding success.  We are releasing this news today for the first time, and I am proud  to tell you that 98% accepted outstanding job offers or educational opportunities in China or the U.S. Almost any university you can name would envy that placement rate. That’s 98 percent!  

Our graduates secured business positions at top companies in China or the U.S., many on the Forbes and Fortune lists of largest companies.  In fact, 55 different companies hired our graduates.  The list includes some of the biggest companies in China or the U.S., including IBM, China Telecom, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Unicom, and China Mobile.  And that’s at a time when the global economy has been a challenge for many seeking jobs.

Those who didn’t immediately go to work at great companies have chosen to go onto graduate school.   And they were accepted into the most prestigious graduate programs anywhere. In the last few weeks, they have started at Columbia and Cornell, Duke and Johns Hopkins, Syracuse and UCLA —and NYIT—often with scholarships.  In fact, 106 students were accepted into colleges or universities in the United States.  And here’s another interesting fact about the 142 students going on to graduate school:  almost 70% of that group – nearly 100 students –  will study for graduate degrees in computer science or electrical and computer engineering.

That’s just some of the great news I share today.  Here’s more:

This month, the U.S. government awarded NYIT and NUPT a $100,000 grant to support our ongoing efforts to bring culture and the humanities to our program and campus.  We will expand the English corner to a 40-seat lounge and study center, full of technology and materials for you to use outside of class.  Some of you will be able to have part-time paid jobs there.  Others will help us run a film and other conferences as interns.

And so, as you use this Center for Humanities and Culture, I hope you will delight in its relaxed, conversational style. It will provide English-language publications and offer computers and Internet connectivity. We’ll also bring in interesting speakers each month and show some unforgettable movies. This will soon be a center for the exchange of ideas.

So it will be even less formal than American classes. And it will be a place to enjoy. For ultimately education is a pleasure: the satisfaction of curiosity, the mastery of fields, and the introduction to wonders. And this center can help you along to all of them.

Thank you, and, I would be happy to take any questions.