Workers vs. Thinkers: Should Universities Be Training or Researching?

At TIME's Education Summit, panelists debate the future direction of U.S. universities

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Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for TIME

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: (L-R) Amy Gutmann, Eli Broad, Mary Fallin, James B. Hunt Jr., Major General Gregg F. Martin, General Colin Powell and P. Roy Vagelos speak at the TIME Summit On Higher Education Day 2 at Time Warner Center on September 20, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for TIME)

Should universities focus on training workers for the next decade or curing diseases for the next century? At TIME’s Education Summit panel on the View from Outside Academe on Friday, governors, soldiers and CEOs weighed in on the best way universities can prepare for the future.

University of Pennsylvania President, Amy Gutmann, who moderated the panel, pointed out the international consensus that America leads the world in higher education.  But the panel — Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, former North Carolina governor James Hunt, National Defense University President Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, and Regeneron Chairman Roy Vagelos —  debated how the U.S. can keep up the research momentum while still preparing students for real jobs.

Fallin said that her first priority as governor is educating Oklahoma students and strengthening the workforce. So she’s spearheading an initiative called “America Works: Education and Training for Tomorrow’s Jobs” that aims to “[re-align] our education system with the current needs of our employers.”

She argued that 50 years ago, a high school degree was enough to qualify a student for 75% of American jobs. Now that number has dropped to 40%, and two thirds of those jobs pay less than $25,000 a year. “The new minimum in education is that someone has to have a post-secondary degree of some sort, whether it is a license or a certificate or an associates degree,” she said. “That’s the only way America is going to stay competitive.”

She added that this new educational approach doesn’t just benefit students and companies, but also revitalizes the state economy. “We’ve been able to attract new companies to our state because of what we’re doing with our universities, because our students are a pipeline for the workforce,” she said. “GE is coming to Oklahoma because they like our engineering students, they like our scientists.”

General Martin agreed that job preparation was necessary, but he added that less practical education also helps students at National Defense University become better soldiers. It’s easy to train soldiers in combat, he said, but a broader education was essential for “the hard government work of creating strategies that can secure peace.”

Powell added, “We need skills and training, but we also need education so that students understand the rest of the world they’re entering.”

Other panel members were more focused on the long-term goals of a research university in favor of equipping students for immediate employment. Amy Gutman pointed out that “basic research is the foundation for everything else that happens at a university. And if we don’t do it, nobody else will.”

And if nobody does that research, we’ll pay the price in health care bills, argued  Vagelos, who is also a former CEO of Merck & Co., Inc. “The jobs of universities are basic research, which is what is needed for attacks on disease,” he said. “There has been a reduction in coronary heart disease by 60% in the last forty years because of this research, and that reduces health care costs.

Hunt argued for a happy medium. Effective communication, he said, would help the public see that the research done at universities actually serves a practical purpose. “When I grew up on a farm, I remember learning vocational agriculture and realized that NC State had developed a new kind of corn,” he said. “When we found that out, we wanted to invest in research.”

Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foundations, agreed. “We have to show the public what research has achieved,” he said. “We have to show how it actually goes from basic research to something they can understand.”

Gutmann added that a broader education is essential for social mobility as well as scientific progress. “I agree that training is important, but if we aim at training then we’ll continue to fall behind,” she said. “When you have high expectations for young people, they’ll rise to those expectations.”

“It’s well documented that when minorities in this country have been trained instead of educated, they don’t even get trained,” she added.

But  Powell expressed concern that the students who were getting  high level science and engineering degrees  weren’t coming out of  the American education system. “We’re not getting enough of our kids into STEM,” he said. “When we see kids walking across the stage with a Masters of Science in Computer science, Masters of Science in Engineering, they’re all Chinese.”