Gee: Higher education requires fundamental shift to survive

WVU Provost Joyce McConnell McConnell WVU President Gordon Gee Gee

CLARKSBURG — As the post-millennial generation, or Generation Z, enters college, the landscape of higher education is changing, requiring a different way of learning.

"We have to reinvent ourselves," West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee said. "We have for so long thought there was kind of an ironclad approach to higher education — that you always did things the same way."

As a new generation starts college with a different world view, Gee said universities must develop a new strategy.

"Forty percent of (Generation Z) doesn't ever want to have a job. They want to be entrepreneurs. They want to create their own life," he said. "Rather than trying to pour old wine into old bottles, we have to pour new wine into new bottles."

His strategy to accomplish that is a fundamental shift in higher education's basic structure, which he said is hierarchical.

"What we have to do is we have to move from a vertical to a horizontal university," Gee said, "allowing people and students and ideas to flow across the boundaries of the institution rather than being stopped."

Gee said there not only needs to be a different kind of relationship within the university, but also a stronger relationship among institutions of higher education.

"Continuing education beyond high school is absolutely critical. ... We have to view ourselves in a continuum," he said of technical schools, community colleges and four-year institutions.

Jobs being created today are geared toward people with some sort of higher education or training, whether that's from a technical college, community college or master's program, Gee said.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Joyce McConnell also said the majority of jobs being created are for people with some post-high school education or training, making higher education critical to lifelong success in the current economy.

"I don't think that everyone necessarily is going to want to have a bachelor's degree," she said.

McConnell also stressed the need for a new way of approaching higher education.

"What can we do on the educational side to help students prepare for an increasingly fast world in which the key to success is really adaptation?" she asked.

While many students are thinking about which majors will lead to certain career paths, she said she thinks about how to solve complex problems from a multidisciplinary perspective.

She said this, as well as adaptation and innovation, are key to students' success.

"How do you learn to learn so that you can adapt to a world that's changing more quickly than we can even imagine?" McConnell asked.

WVU has already made this shift, she said, with an expansive undergrad research network.

"From the very beginning, (students) really focus on the problem-solving aspect," she said. "They're focused on the analytical process it takes to do that research, and they're connecting with a faculty member and working in a team."

Education needs to be considered a lifelong process and journey to getting better and better at solving complex problems, she said.

Another change at WVU is a completely restructured freshman seminar to allow students to map out their comprehensive learning experience.

"The importance of learning how to adapt and plan and analyze and think about success, is you can chart a pathway forward," McConnell said.

In charting their success, students can plan for internships or learning a foreign language as well as experiences to help them become better problem solvers, she added.

Without a fundamental shift within and new approach to higher education, Gee said universities will go the way of the dinosaur, being a victim of change rather than its architect.

"We have no choice but to get better, and we have no choice but to make certain we're very agile and very competitive. ... We have to listen carefully to the newer generation and be much more responsive to their views and have them take on much more of a leadership role," Gee said.




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