University of Rochester

Symposium Speakers Raise Critical Issues for American Universities

October 23, 2005

At a symposium celebrating the inauguration of Joel Seligman as University of Rochester president, four higher education leaders today challenged universities around the country to invest in teaching and research with global implications while thinking locally about communities at their doorstep.

"In some fields, we're too focused on the United States," said Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University. As university faculties have become more specialized, their institutions find themselves "less able to address actual problems," he noted. "We do not have enough of our minds really focused on the great problems" of fighting diseases in the developing world or being knowledgeable about contemporary China, for instance, Bollinger said.

He and Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. William A. Peck, former executive vice chancellor for medical affairs at Washington University in St. Louis; and John Sexton, president of New York University, shared the stage at Strong Auditorium on the River Campus of the University of Rochester to identify directions in higher education for the 21st century.

"Just in our lifetime, America's most elite institutions have undergone an amazing transformation from bastions of privilege . . . to far more diverse and dynamic fellowships of learners as equal partners," said Gutmann. "The main work of our time is to make sure that middle-income and low-income students are well-represented on our campuses. We still have a long way to go."

Members of the panel raised an array of challenges for higher education leadership, including the need to deal with local communities near their campuses even as they must stand as important players on the world stage.

Peck, a physician and expert in health policy, expressed concern about the lack of universal health care in the United States and the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance. He said "the cure must come from the universities" where physicians, economists, political scientists, and others "must get together to formulate solutions to transform American health care into the future."

Sexton of New York University described this early part of the 21st century as a "moment of robust individualism," and agreed with the other speakers about the need for a sense of community and openness on campuses and around the country. Yet he asked how it will be possible to create that community "in this world of the aggressive 'other' . . . the 'other' we formerly could ignore and could deny."

The inaugural symposium, moderated by Hugo F. Sonnenschein, president emeritus of the University of Chicago and an alumnus of Rochester, began the inauguration day for Seligman, who assumed office July 1.

The panelists will receive special recognition during the inauguration at Eastman Theatre. Honorary degrees will be awarded to Bollinger, Gutmann, and Sexton. Peck, an alumnus of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, will receive the Hutchison Medal, the highest award given to alumni.