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Homage to Ernie Boyer (Sir John Daniel)

Sir John Daniel, President and Chief Executive Officer

Last month I had the privilege of giving the Boyer Family Lecture on the 40th anniversary of SUNY's (State University of New York) Empire State College. Ernie Boyer was an unusual combination in higher education: an impeccably establishment figure who was also a consistent innovator. He joined SUNY in 1965 as winds of change began to blow open the doors to higher education. As Chancellor he created Empire State College in 1971 so that people could take degree courses without attending classes.

Giving the Boyer Lecture had personal meaning for me. I had been aware of Ernie Boyer as one of the leading figures in US education since the early 1970s. I knew of his role in the creation of Empire State College and had followed with awe his progression from Chancellor of SUNY, to US Commissioner of Education, to President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Not to mention his collection of 165 honorary degrees – probably a record!

In 1992 I was honoured to receive a letter from him, out of the blue, asking me to become a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation, a role I held through to his death and the Foundation's move from Princeton to Palo Alto under Lee Schulman. Those years as a trustee, from 1993 to 2001, were enormously stimulating and brought me into the company, twice a year, of some of the most prominent doers and thinkers in US higher education. I can best describe our role in Ernie's day as that of an editorial board. We were not expected to do anything as pedestrian as commenting on drafts of his writing – instead our task was to be both retrospective and prospective.

His great work, Scholarship Reconsidered, had been published in 1990 and we reviewed the evidence of its impact regularly. Like many seminal books it is quite short – a mere 84 pages of text – but through it he shows a tremendous grasp of the history of US higher education and the trends and tensions that have moulded its evolution. He wrote in the late 1980s, when faculty hiring was beginning to pick up again after a rather barren period, but his optimism was tempered by concern that just as the missions of higher education were diversifying, both institutions and faculty were being forced into a narrower conception of their roles.

About institutions he wrote that: 'we need a climate in which colleges and universities are less imitative, taking pride in their uniqueness. It's time to end the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission'.

About the faculty he wrote: 'even as the mission of higher education was expanding, the standards used to measure academic prestige continued to be narrowed' adding that 'ironically, at the very time America's higher education institutions were becoming more open and inclusive, the culture of the professoriate was becoming more hierarchical and restrictive'.

In the lecture I argued that today we can, unfortunately, apply these remarks to higher education globally. At a time when national higher education systems should be diversifying to address rapidly increasing demand, the fashion for university rankings, which are almost exclusively based on research output, is driving institutions to downplay the teaching function. The notion of so-called 'world-class' universities also contributes to a narrowing of focus.

In the lecture I also argued that we should counter these trends by promoting a new wave of openness in higher education, of which the proposed Open Educational Resource University might be one example.

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