October 26, 2001

President Emeritus Rhodes Discusses Higher Education

Print More

Cornell President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes has dedicated the past 50 years of his life to improving university-level education, because he believes “the process of metamorphosis into a new life phase is invigorating.” Rhodes has enjoyed teaching, research, and university administration at numerous campuses, including University of Michigan, University of Wales, and University of Illinois, and is now a critic of these institutions in his newly published book, The Creation of the Future: The Role of the American University.

In his book, Rhodes — who was President of Cornell from 1977 to 1995 and University of Michigan Provost prior to that — describes the purpose of universities, the goals they should strive to achieve, and suggestions for reaching these goals based on his experiences as both a university administrator and professor. He also explains some of the chronic deficiencies of higher education and the ways they might be remedied in order to maintain public support.

Rhodes indicated that the purpose of his book is to defend the importance of higher education and the need for it to exist on traditional college campuses.

He explains to non-specialists that the purpose of universities is to give students practical skills in addition to the ability to confront society’s challenges. In the book, he does not pretend that universities are perfect or should be exempt from criticism.

According to Rhodes, many newspaper and magazine articles have criticized universities for not living up to society’s expectations. For example, some critics, such as Peter Drucker in the March 10, 1997 issue of Forbes magazine, have argued that professors often focus too much on research and not enough on teaching, and that grading has become too lenient.

Moreover, the emergence of distance learning allows people to take college-level courses from their homes through a computer and never set foot on a college campus. As a result, many critics of traditional higher education assert that the need for centralized college campuses is dwindling and their way of educating students is growing obsolete.

In defending the need for university education, Alfred North Whitehead is quoted as follows: “The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue.”

Rhodes explains that the essence of being on a university campus is a sense of community and the wealth of knowledge that is shared, not only between students and professors, but between students as well.

“That all really contributes to education,” he said.

In the book, Rhodes cites an American history course taught by Walter LaFeber, Marie Underhill Noll Professor of American History, as an example. In this class, LaFeber required students to choose a topic, read all of the information they could find on it, review their research before presenting it to the class, and then engage in a debate with other students in the class. According to Rhodes, this close interaction and sharing of knowledge could not take place without the community provided by a college setting.

He clarifies the distinction between “instruction” and “education” in his book. While instruction is the “imparting of knowledge