Educator’s Digest

2Rivers April 27 to May 3 Edition

This story originally appeared in Philippine Panorama, January 27, 2013

The ideal university is more than an academic institution. "I find it helpful to think of a university as a living thing, an organism, rather than an organization," says Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., in his paper, Institutional Leadership. Just like any animated being, a university should have "a principle of unity and direction, a principle of life, a spirit if you wish." The president of a university, to use the human brain as an analogy, is the prefrontal cortex, which "plays the central role in forming goals and objectives and then in devising plans of action," says Nebres, quoting The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Crucial to effective leadership is "an image of the self," according to Fr. Nebres. "The first requirement for an educational leader then is a good feel, a sense of his university," he says. "I have often called this as having a feel for the principle of life of our institution."  It is important, Fr. Nebres says, to know its phase of growth, citing Adize's book Corporate Lifecycles. A university could be in its infancy, and "my goal must then be to plan for the next stage," says Fr. Nebres. If  it’s already on its venerable stage, like the Ateneo, "Then my planning demands looking for ways to bring back the vision and energy of youth” yet “remain faithful to what has made it successful." 

A university, just like humans, needs to be healthy. "A major goal, therefore, which a leader must always attend to is the over-all health of the university." This means focusing on the critical area of financing: moving from "wish lists to prioritized and do-able plans," says Fr. Nebres. The wise handling of a university's main resource, tuition fees, can spell the difference between academic excellence and mediocrity. "Grants and donations are icing on the cake and they are wonderful," says Fr. Nebres, "if you have the cake in the first place"

Making Pathways

Our world is radically transforming. "The implication of this new world of work where firms are compelled to be learning organizations in order to survive is that workers must be lifelong learners," says Prof. Cristina Damasco Padolina in her paper Making Pathways For and Creating The Future of Education.  The world has become "knowledge-intensive," she says, quoting the economist Peter Drucker from his one of his more more recent bestsellers, Managing The Future. We are now living in the (no longer proverbial) knowledge-based society. "Knowlege and the people skilled in its use are the coins of the realm," says Padolina, quoting Charles M. Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winners who will emerge are those that feed on knowlege and create it, "using the principles of cybernetics, designed for fast change, which can learn, evolve and transform itself rapidly," says Prof. Padolina, quoting James Martin in Cybercorp. 

The imperative for educators, according to Prof. Padolina, is, first: to be equipped with both the inclination and skill for gaining knowledg. The second implication is that universities must rise to the challenge. "There are three characteristics of lifelong learning provisions: diverse, flexible and accessible," and they "are intertwined," says Prof. Padolina. "We need to look into short-cycle programs," which "provide students with convenient exit points,” which also serve as entry points." 

Another global phenomenon to consider is information technology. "Like the facets of a diamond that throws light in many directions," says Prof. Padolina, "the facets of IT as used in education provide various challenges and opportunities." There are practical applications, like flight simulators to train pilots, and "IT has definitely been shown to work for learning some kinetic skills," she says. One challenge is the application of human creativity," says Prof. Padolina. She quotes the broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow, whose words about radio are also appropriate for IT: "This instrument can teach; it can illustrate, yes, it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that learners are determined to use to those ends." 

A more fundamental thing to think about IT is the kind of connections we are making, says Prof. Padolina, quoting from The Lexus and The Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman. "They can empower you to touch the lives of many people, but they can't tell you what to say at a PTA meeting, or why to say it."

Changing Vision

The last 50 years have changed life as we know it more than the last 500. In the air hangs a sense of more things to amaze us. "They will come from out of the blue, from out of an inchoate set of premises; they will be, as it were, 'un-anticipatable' changes," says former Education Undersecretary Victor Ordoñez, in his paper The Changing Vision and Mission of Higher Education Research Amidst Globalization

The speed and volume of information going around the world is irreversible, affecting everything, including higher education. "The challenge is to assure that this momentum leads to mutual respect, understanding and benefits to all," says Usec. Ordoñez, and not to "paradoxically, a retreat to confrontational isolationism, under the perverse disguise of protecting local identities." A new vision for education is needed to adapt to this interdependent world.  In this context, Usec. Ordonez has unique perpectives, with his stints at the UNESCO and the Honolulu-based think tank East-West Center.  These "triggers of inspiration" gave him fresh insights: There is a great need to do university research collaboratively; the agenda is becoming more driven by policy makers; research should be inter-disciplinary; and "research must focus on effectiveness issues, rather than efficiency issues." 

Computers, he reminds us, did not come from typewriter-makers. "As the huge ship of university systems in our countries navigates around the icebergs of cataclysmic changes," he says, admirably concluding his speech with a scene from Titanic, "my plea is that we do not fritter our time away by re-arranging our furniture and concentrate on navigating and saving our ship."


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