The instrument of hope: The public research university

I assumed the presidency of the University of Maryland amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a heightened urgency to address racial injustice, sparked by the senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and too many others. Over two years later, we still wrestle with these challenges – and so many more. War and conflict. Inequality and hate. Political polarization and threats to democracy. In today’s hyper connected global environment, the problems facing humanity seem more daunting than ever.

These threats are omnipresent in newspapers, social media and broadcast networks. Consume too much of the difficulties before us, and we risk falling into despair and hopelessness. Cut ourselves off from it, and we risk becoming ignorant, or worse, apathetic.

That is why I believe we need to reframe these grand challenges as grand opportunities.

Despite the uncertainty and tragedy of the last two years, I still have great optimism. Hope, after all, is the prerequisite for progress, and we have continually seen people and institutions willing to step forward and assume responsibility for improving the human condition.

Who, then, will choose to lead boldly? Public research universities, particularly those in the Association of American Universities (AAU), of which the University of Maryland is a proud member. We are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship and scientific progress, economic development, security and well-being. Our institutions are uniquely positioned to take on the grand challenges of our time, and it is on our campuses where the four essential elements of progress converge.

The first element is an unwavering and resolute belief in the power of research and discovery. Look no further than the dramatic development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Developed by pharmaceutical companies in a remarkably short period of time, these vaccines were made possible because of previous decades of research and investment in chemistry, biology and medicine. We have only begun to see the potential of mRNA vaccines, which could transform treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS and cardiovascular disease. The solutions to our grand challenges will be found through this same rigorous dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.

Expanding our vision and imagination through the arts and the humanities is the second ingredient. The arts humanize our challenges and foster universal understanding. In order to build a more tolerant and peaceful world, we will need the wisdom that comes from visionary dance, novels, music and all types of performance. The arts and sciences are also mutually beneficial; in a report entitled “Branches from the Same Tree,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “integration of the arts and humanities with STEM … leads to certain positive learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, communication skills, the ability to work well in teams, content mastery, improved visuo-spatial skills, and improved motivation and enjoyment of learning.” Solutions to our grand challenges will demand all of these skills.

Many of our conflicts also remain rooted in a misunderstanding of our differences, the failure to recognize shared values and the fear of something unknown across race, religion, skin color, sexual identity, gender or political affiliation. Any institution taking on the grand challenges of our time must embrace a true multicultural community, where every person is valued and heard and can learn from different cultures, experiences and perspectives. This is the third essential element.

Universities are at the heart of this, because it is here that students often encounter new people and ideas that challenge long-held beliefs. And what better place is there to discuss and debate fiercely-held ideas and ideals than at an institution of higher learning? Our mission is to educate global citizens, expose them to ideas and ideals and equip them with the experiences needed to pursue solutions. Answers to our grand challenges can only be found when we purposefully create an inclusive, multicultural community. Here at Maryland, we are investing $40 million in recruiting faculty of color and reimagining our core diversity programming for all students. The pursuit of a welcoming multicultural community should be considered a perpetual and vital work in progress.

We also need the next generation of students to be driven by purpose and shaped by unique learning experiences, inside and outside the classroom. This is the final element of progress.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of major public universities is the scope of their co-curricular opportunities, the chances to partner with groundbreaking researchers and promising students on projects and competitions. Recently, teams from universities across the country competed in a Vertical Flight Society competition that encouraged interest in unmanned aircraft technology and small air vehicle design and fabrication. The competition was designed to develop hands-on skills and familiarization with electric vertical take-off and advanced air mobility technology, helping to prepare the next generation of engineers and leaders. These types of competitions catalyze technological innovations and learning outcomes. We need more unique experiences, challenges, contests and prizes like this to drive innovation.

These are the essential ingredients of hope and progress: A robust research enterprise. A commitment to the arts and humanities. An inclusive and respectful multicultural community. Unique and challenging learning experiences.

If this reads like a love letter to public research universities, it’s because it is. Institutions like the University of Maryland are where all of these driving forces converge, every day. As we face growing and increasingly complex global challenges, we must reinvest and rededicate ourselves to the support of research universities. This is where breakthroughs and discoveries will usher in a new era of progress and prosperity for all humankind.

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