Only a little more than a year after I arrived at Washington State University, America and the world were shocked by the events now simply known as “9/1l.” It is difficult to assess how much our lives were altered by that event and the chain of actions that followed. Afghanistan and then Iraq became the centers for the “war on terrorism,” and intrusions on our freedom and privacy that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago became somewhat commonplace. The war in Iraq is now four years old, and is nothing remotely related to what we expected. Furthermore, we really do not know where we go from here. I believe that 9/11 is probably the defining event for the generation of students now in college.
Perhaps related to this issue, it also seems to me that our public discussion of different religions, philosophies, races, and backgrounds has reached a new level of intensity. In this discussion, being politically correct too often means that opinions and reasonable debate are stifled by labels. At both the national and local level, this tension is evident in discussions of issues as diverse as immigration, foreign policy, and trade relations.
These are by no means the only big and thorny issues facing this generation. A host of relatively new concerns often put science, scientists, and universities squarely at the center of the debates. Global warming, genetically modified organisms, worldwide epidemics, stem cell research, and cloning are among the issues that have made it from the scientific journals to the news and talk media.
So, what does all this have to do with Washington State University? I believe the “World Class. Face to Face” tradition of our university provides a vision for tomorrow’s learning environment that is ideal for reasoning together on these important matters. Only with a lot of face-to-face interaction among caring and educated people can we learn how to think about things more clearly and objectively and reach balance in our views. The University is a place that thrusts together people with vastly different backgrounds and education. Students gain wholly different perspectives when they work with people from other cultures and nations. There is an equally profound experience when our world-class scientists work directly with undergraduate and graduate students, sharing perspectives born of decades of experience and investigation. Exposure to fields beyond immediate career interests serve to expand and broaden our vision, and this breadth is required in every student curriculum plan.
If we are to have a better world, we have to take this work seriously. Frankly, it is appalling how little our students know about the rest of the world and how they avoid foreign languages and history. It is equally concerning that most of them consider mathematics and science too hard or too boring. As a nation, we are waking up to some of these deficiencies and attempting to modify our educational system. But we all admit that we do not have a clear vision or plan for what we need to do.
I do not pretend to know all the answers, but my experience tells me that the most effective way to learn is by doing things together. In that face-to-face experience we are more likely to understand both the problem and each other. In the research university the opportunity is greatest, I believe, because researchers and teachers are the same people and are required to be leaders in their fields and academic disciplines. Thus, faculty and students intermingle in a learning environment that is aimed at addressing the big issues and problems of the world. Focusing on what we are trying to learn, rather than on defending our existing positions, brings us together and advances both our abilities and our knowledge. I found as a faculty member years ago that the roles of teacher and student were often reversed when students were direct participants in the research process. I believe that the future is bright for WSU and others universities that are up to this challenge.
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my successor, Dr. Elson S. Floyd, as the 10th president of Washington State University. I believe we have selected a man who can help us refine our dream and attain higher levels than ever before. If we give him our full support, his chances are greatly improved. As my seven years as president come to a close, I want to thank the entire University family for their support and for making Washington State University a better, stronger university.