Universities need to come to terms with the fact that state support for public university systems is in decline and likely to stay that way.
"We really aren't going to return to the good old days," retiring University of Montana president George Dennison told a crowd gathered Monday for his symposium on the future of higher education.
Instead, said Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, schools must look to partnerships with business and become more entrepreneurial themselves.
"The crisis that we're facing is a change for leadership by universities," Gee said.
Dennison's afternoon symposium gathered university presidents, officials and faculty for a broad-ranging discussion, but it also served as an opportunity for folks to say thanks to the UM president, who is retiring after 20 years.
There was, not surprisingly, some difference in what challenges the future holds.
Gee, Dennison and Peter Magrath, who headed several universities, talked primarily about the administrative challenges facing universities in the face of declining public funding.
UM philosophy professor Albert Borgmann said that faculty too often fail to appreciate what it takes to make "universities a going concern." That said, once the money problem is handled, universities must focus on "what is our reason to be."
And that reason is the good society. The university's job in producing that society is to educate students not just as professionals but as people of cultural and moral excellence.
Universities, Borgmann said, teach two things - means and ends.
Means, things like law, medicine and business, are well and good. But they are not the full recipe for a good life.
That, Borgmann said, takes fiction, poetry, dancing, philosophy, music and history.
Means, he said, are much appreciated by society, while ends are merely tolerated.
Society has come to mirror that focus, as Americans have become bloated physically and unconcerned emotionally with the world's suffering.
"A good society," Borgmann said, "that is what we must create."
History professor Paul Lauren echoed Borgmann's comments, and said that while universities do face a changing landscape, particularly in terms of how they're financed, they can't forget what they've historically done well.
"We do have to face the challenge of change but also of continuity," Laurent said. "What have we done well and how can we keep doing it?"
Like Borgmann, he said colleges must produce Renaissance citizens, people educated across a broad range of knowledge and with a capacity to reason for themselves.
"It's not what to think but how to think," he said. "They must be able to confront our challenges with discernment and good judgment."
Obviously, much of what Borgmann and Lauren talked about won't get done if universities don't find a way to pick up the financial burden once carried by states.
The saying goes in academia that a professor must "publish or perish." Now, Gee and Magrath said, universities themselves must "partner or perish."
That means universities working together and with business, Magrath said.
"There's no magic bullets, only tough choices," he said. "we'll have to cooperate, do my private fundraising, have new collaborations."
Gee described the choice universities face as something akin to moving to new dance music.
"You'll either become a ballerina or a dinosaur," he said.
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.