By Joe Carley, director for economic development, Indiana University
The theme of this year’s University Economic Development Association summit, “Disruptive Economic Development,” put some of the most challenging questions facing higher education in the spotlight. How do universities offer an education that will lead to meaningful work opportunities when robots and computers are increasingly able to accomplish tasks more efficiently than humans? How will the changing nature of work impact the traditional model for learning at a university campus?
Joseph Auon, president of Northeastern University, offered a keynote that addressed these topics, including insights from his recent book, “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”
President Auon described the challenge for universities to stay relevant as jobs that have traditionally been filled by college graduates are lost to automation. His prescription for universities is to focus on three types of literacies: technological literacy, data literacy and human literacy. He believes that human contributions to work will be increasingly centered on critical thinking, creativity and knowledge integration.
Auon noted that the American system of higher education is uniquely positioned to help students integrate knowledge because students can move between and combine disciplines. In Europe, it’s difficult to change focus once a student starts a pathway.
The role of place in advancing innovation and talent was also central to the conference.
The need to break down physical boundaries that inhibit partnerships between higher education institutions and external organizations was a consistent theme. The conference host, the University of Wisconsin system, is currently trying to address the workforce needs of Foxconn by establishing innovation centers where students can work side-by-side with Foxconn R&D staff. Foxconn has promised to create 13,000 jobs as part of the deal.
Adam Glaser, architect and urban designer, identified an aspect of place-based university economic development, an idea he calls “upward immobility.” This is the notion that universities that develop their physical assets in a compelling way attract people who move — not primarily for educational purposes, but to be a part of the university ecosystem. He identified the rise of innovation districts as evidence of the deep interconnection between talent, innovation and place.
Auon also touched on a similar theme, describing how advances in artificial intelligence will drive a greater need for lifelong learning and noting that this is already causing universities to establish new presences in locations that are convenient for workers.
Several presenters also noted the importance of experiential education for driving talent retention — an area where Indiana University is leading through its Education-to-Employment Convergence conference and the Center for Rural Engagement’s applied teaching and learning initiatives.
UEDA provided a great opportunity to hear about best practices in higher education engagement and to share strategies for staying ahead of disruption. Despite the challenges universities face, it was also clear that universities continue to play a critical role in talent and human capital development, research and problem solving, and the development of vibrant and culturally rich places.