Dr. Douglas Knowlton, president of the fine university at which I work and study, addresses the seemingly inevitable legislative discussion of closing a university campus. He tells my neighbor and MDL reporter Elisa Sand that such talk is "absurd" and that closing any one of our campuses would be a net loss for the state.
Dr. Knowlton offers this bit of advice to our friends at Northern State on how to strengthen their case against the budget ax:
If the NSU campus has a weakness, Knowlton said, it's the fact that it lacks an identifying program, but the campus in Aberdeen is making efforts to market the new programs that have recently been created.
"Any school needs to find more of a niche," he said [Elisa Sand, "Knowlton Calls Discussion to Close One S.D. College Campus Narrow-Sighted," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.10.09].
I appreciate my boss's expertise in business and marketing. I recognize the practical value of distinguishing one's product or brand by doing something no one else does.
But for all my understanding of the market and political realities of higher education, I question whether niche marketing is the proper paradigm for our university system. Consider Northern specifically: what Dr. Knowlton identifies as a weakness, others might deem Northern's strength. Might not a university want to argue that it's "identifying program" is a broad liberal arts education? Might not a university distinguish itself by offering lots of diverse majors and minors?
The university should address the universe (yes, the words are related) of ideas and possibilities. They should assemble a universe of scholars—both professors and students, seekers of all kinds of knowledge—who will interact in the lively brew of diverse views and interests that spur creativity and strengthen society. My SDSU education in my math and history majors was enriched by the opportunity to take Russian and philosophy. My SDSU experience was enriched by rooming with a range and wildlife science major and living with the cowboys in Hansen Hall. So was my appreciation for the work of our conservation officers and our farmers.
Even MIT, with its "niche" as the mad scientist capital of the world, makes room for majors (majors!) in foreign languages, philosophy, and theater. Granted, neither NSU nor DSU is MIT... but does it hurt to measure ourselves against the biggest and best?
My conception of the university is perhaps out of step with the prevailing business needs of society. We can't just sit back and think grand thoughts; the university needs to be relevant to business and society, needs to give communities bang for their buck. But it is possible that a university can deliver that bang as effectively by reaching for more of the universe, not less.