What exactly is a university? Originally known as universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which translates roughly as a community of masters and scholars, higher education in Europe originally took place in cathedral schools taught by monks and nuns, and the earliest universities were established under the Latin church, monarchs, or municipalities. The liberal arts were originally understood as the essential subjects that free men studied (as opposed to slaves) in order to contribute to society as informed citizens.
What the university means to us now is a fundamental question for students, faculty, and alumni, yet one that doesn’t have a facile answer. Many others have an interest in defining the institution as well—parents, university staff, taxpayers, legislators, and the global community. The question seems more pressing than ever, as we consider the cost of education, the role of technology in how students learn, and the question of what students hope or need to learn from their university experience.
Defining Today’s University
So how do you begin to answer this question? If you’re associate professor of English Kristina Bross, you develop a course in Purdue’s new Honors College—“The Idea of the University: Past, Present, Future”—and a corresponding public lecture series run by the students in the class.
Says Bross, “My sense is that we don’t have very many chances to talk as a community about what higher education is, what the land grant mission is, and what Purdue is. So I wanted to try to initiate that conversation with students and with members of the community.” Bross, who is also the newly appointed director of the College of Liberal Arts Honors Program, invited speakers from a wide range of disciplines to address aspects of university culture, including engagement, interdisciplinarity, diversity, and how we define the role of an engineer. She also asked faculty to speak about tenure and academic freedom, and invited alumni to form a roundtable discussion. “I tried to choose topics that I thought were either in the public eye and needed more illumination or maybe weren’t being discussed in public, but that I hear as a faculty member in conversations. I also tried to choose speakers whose own research was pertinent to the topic,” Bross explains.
President Daniels on Purdue’s Future
President Mitch Daniels also considered the idea of the university as he prepared for his new role in higher education. He visited campus regularly to talk with students and faculty, conducted interviews with experts and other university presidents, and developed a reading list to study the history of Purdue and higher education in general, as well as the challenges that universities face economically and technologically. In an open letter to the people of Purdue in January 2013, he outlined some of the frequent criticisms of higher education and the challenges to the current university model.
“I've been party to the overreading of trends and the overreactions it can cause; these mistakes have taught me never to be dismissive of criticism or warnings, but also to move cautiously in response,” he wrote. “And it's become my firm conviction these last few months that…Purdue has a chance to set itself apart as a counterexample to much of the criticism lodged against higher ed in general.”
President Daniels cites several areas he thinks require the Purdue community’s attention if it hopes to face the challenges to higher education effectively. He believes that “in a world dependent for growth on the rate and quality of technological innovation, Purdue, given the high quality of its discovery and research talent, has a chance to dazzle and deliver. From times of stress and difficulty, in any category of endeavor, strong and farsighted enterprises emerge stronger than before. If there is in fact to be a shakeout in higher education, let's resolve ourselves that Purdue will not merely survive but thrive, and find itself much higher than today, in the first rank of the world's great centers of learning.”
We invite you to read the full text of President Daniels’s open letter as you consider what you’d like to see for Purdue’s future—and the future of higher education.
One speaker who touches on many of the topics in the series is artist and associate professor Fabian Winkler of the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts. His discussion of art’s role at a public university, “Collaborative Culture: Art and Technology at Purdue,” is grounded in part by his study of the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Founded in 1966 by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, the group wanted to “collaborate on projects that they thought had a meaningful impact on culture,” says Winkler, “and that’s the important starting point for me.”
Winkler and assistant professor Shannon McMullen, who has a joint appointment in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts and American Studies, are good examples of faculty working at the intersection of art and science—one of the hallmarks of liberal arts at Purdue University. They collaborate frequently on art installations that have meaningful impact, including their latest project, the National Security Garden, located on the southeast side of Elliott Hall. The garden is a large planter box filled with rows of soybeans, which take on a magenta glow at night thanks to blue and red LED lights (sometimes used to stimulate growth in greenhouses) powered by solar panels.
The project’s combination of nature and technology, as well as its provocative name, are meant to challenge all who visit the garden to consider just how many contemporary issues are linked to the soybean plant, explains McMullen. Soybeans are used to make innovative products, but are also part of our global discussion on resource use, climate change, and worldwide food supplies—all issues that can affect the food security and national security of any nation.
Both McMullen and Winkler have been influenced by designers who engage in critical design—the creation of an artwork or installation that provokes questions or the beginning of a critique. The National Security Garden presents a strong image of something familiar to the viewer literally displayed in a new light, says Winkler. He hopes that as people pass by, they will start to wonder about the piece and ask questions that lead them to further investigation. Interacting with the garden “must be a process on the side of the audience as well,” he says. “That’s the strength of an artwork—that you don’t really lay out everything on a singular path for interpretation, but you present certain types of clues, and ideally present a very strong image that triggers some of these questions. Art basically relates to all the contemporary questions that we have in society, and in science and technology. So with this project, we try to reveal some of these connections.”
Experiential Learning Across Disciplines
The National Security Garden was originally displayed in Germany, but McMullen and Winkler installed it again at Purdue in collaboration with the students in an Honors College seminar on food security organized by Dennis Savaiano, Interim Dean of the Honors College, and Emily Allen, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Honors College and an associate professor of English. Students in the seminar, who study a wide variety of majors, spent the first semester hearing from experts in all aspects of food security, and coordinated the installation of the National Security Garden as an experiential learning project. The students posted their progress on Facebook and Twitter, and each is posting his or her ideas about an issue they think the garden can illuminate to the class blog.
See how Purdue students and faculty installed the National Security Garden.
Delaney Garrett, a freshman majoring in law and society, blogged that “hunger is not just a personal issue; its roots stretch all the way to government policies.” At the same time, she says, part of what she’s learned from working on the National Security Garden is that “there are little things you can do to raise awareness about hunger. At a local level, doing a project like this, and getting people to ask questions and get involved, is a big thing.”
For William Van Buskirk, a freshman in engineering, one of the most valuable parts of the project is the opportunity to work with students from several different academic areas. “The idea of interdisciplinary teams has been a key part of it. I’m working with power tools with a computer scientist, a law and society major, and a chemistry major. We’ve never used stuff like a miter saw or drill press, but we’re all coming together and we’re learning new skills as a team. This is a pretty cool experience because everyone’s looking at different angles and different ideas,” he says.
In order to expand the reach of their project, the students have organized a symposium on campus for Earth Day on April 22, featuring McMullen, Winkler, associate professor of political science Patricia Boling, and Colonel Mark Mykleby of the New America Foundation. They are also creating an exhibition of the project’s concept and development that opens in Purdue Galleries on April 26. The installation will remain on campus until mid-July, and while the spring semester is in session, students will often be present at the site in teams to talk with anyone who stops to look at the garden. McMullen and Winkler hope students develop a skill they believe is crucial in society: the ability to have a civilized discourse among people with different viewpoints and ideas. “We want them to have the experience of receiving questions that they may not have anticipated, and conversations that are sometimes easy, sometimes interesting, and sometimes difficult,” says McMullen.
Assistant professor Shannon McMullen (far left) and associate professor Fabian Winkler (far right), both of the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts, celebrate the building of the frame for the National Security Garden installation with students from the Honors College seminar. (Students, left to right, are Marissa Berns, freshman in engineering; Jake Brosius, freshman in law and society; Jien Nee Tai, freshman in chemistry; and William Van Buskirk, freshman in engineering.) Photo courtesy of Shannon McMullen & Fabian Winkler
Both McMullen and Winkler work in electronic and time-based art, exploring computer technologies as a creative medium. McMullen brings a PhD in sociology to her work as an artist, and is interested in art that engages and shapes the experience of urban spaces. Winkler studied at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany, which was connected to a center for art and media in the same building, and linked to the University of Karlsruhe and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Thus, his installations always drew from both art and design and the research and technology available to him through the linked institutions. “I see similar opportunities here at Purdue where we have all of these different disciplines on campus. For us as artists, it’s very exciting to be able to connect to them—from mechanical engineering to computer science to agriculture.”
Nurturing Collaborative Culture
The idea of the National Security Garden grew from an earlier interdisciplinary seminar McMullen and Winkler taught at Purdue called Images of Nature, which was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The course allowed students to work at the intersection of science, art, and technology to create work (whether a product, computer application, artwork, or other form) that responded to our changing natural environment. One of the purposes of the course, says McMullen, was “to create a growing local culture for creative collaboration at Purdue.” She and Winkler wanted to develop a model for interdisciplinary collaboration, she says, because although Purdue offers a great academic environment for collaboration, it doesn’t happen on its own. The challenge is cultivating those links, and figuring out the best ways to bring students together and help them interact.
Future collaborations for McMullen and Winkler may include projects with Michael Gulich, the Director of University Sustainability; designs with smart fabrics developed by Justin Seipel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and work on robotics with assistant professor Juan Wachs in industrial engineering. In the last project, they hope to extend their work with the National Security Garden by programming a highly dexterous robot with computer vision to single out and pick weeds in the installation. “For us, the interesting part of this project is, how does our cultural perception of weeds translate into something that is very yes/no, black/white computer code that can be executed by a machine,” says Winkler.
“This is an example of how we approach interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s through talking to somebody outside of your field that you get exposed to technology and ideas that you wouldn’t within your field. But then you come back with questions that they wouldn’t necessarily get. Out of that can come multiple projects in which hopefully both collaborators benefit. Each field should be somewhat changed by the project in some way,” says McMullen.
Bross sought that same interdisciplinary viewpoint when she invited faculty from several areas to discuss the idea of the university, highlighting Winkler and McMullen in one of the lectures. They, in turn, were collaborating with Allen and Savaiano to provide an artistic, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning experience for students studying the global problem of hunger. Over the semester, Bross’s class and seminar series seem to have come full circle—or perhaps revealed concentric circles in the best attributes of a university.
Why Attend a University?
Students in associate professor of English Kristina Bross’s “Idea of the University” class read about and discussed not only the research of the speakers in the lecture series, but also materials from Bross’s research in Purdue history at the turn of the twentieth century, which she conducts with professor of history Susan Curtis. Robert W. Topping’s A Century and Beyond: The History of Purdue University is on the syllabus, as is the Morrill Act, which allowed for the establishment of land-grant universities. (The Morrill Act indicated that at least one college should focus on teaching agriculture and the mechanic arts, but that even this college should do so “without excluding other scientific and classical studies…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.”) The 2012 manifesto College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities and American studies at Columbia University, is required reading, along with a 1903 Herbert Hopkins novel about a university hiring a new president. Articles from media like The Chronicle of Higher Education round out the reading, as students debate university governance structures and the stakes for each constituency. Students will present their original research projects on an aspect of the university at the end of the semester.
“I’m hoping that the class will help us all become better citizens both within and without the university in terms of the issue of higher education,” says Bross. And although she knows it might seem clichéd to say that she’s learning as much from her students as they do from her, it has been true for her. “I have my perspective on what higher education is and I have a lot of expertise to bring to the table. But I don’t know what it’s like to live in Windsor or Shreve. And I don’t know what it’s like to work in the lab as a student, so I get some of that perspective back,” she says, noting that the cost of education is also a big concern for many in her class.
In one session, Bross challenged her students to consider their reasons for attending a university and to place them in a pie chart showing their relative weight. She then asked students to develop a similar pie chart of reasons to attend college that are often cited in the media. Comparing and contrasting these charts, which was meant as a quick discussion starter, quickly took up the entire hour, says Bross. The class found the idea so provocative that they agreed on a new assignment: to survey friends and family for their own university pie charts and analyze them. We hope you’ll share your reasons for attending university (whether Purdue or any other). Select your top reasons, or share your thoughts in the comments section.
My own children still cannot fathom how or why I spent thirteen years—undergraduate through graduate school—giving up so much time and money to pursue academic degrees (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.). My parents did not have a college education, and none of my three older siblings had earned degrees from a four-year institution. I viewed college as the biggest, widest set of doors open to me. Especially as a liberal arts major, the university offered me the world: literature, languages, history, art, science. It was all there for me. How humbling it was to realize and appreciate that my teachers' knowledge, wisdom, and passion about each and every subject was their precious gift to me. The sharing of ideas and the hope of making the world a better place—these are what led me through those doors.