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Universities as agents of change

March 7, 2014 by William McKenzie

A question has been replaying in my mind ever since Tuesday’s meeting of Texas university leaders here at the Bush Institute and SMU. 

I don’t know who brought the question up, but one university official asked the members of a panel what they thought about the role universities can play as leaders of change.

One panelist commented that there certainly were a lot of activist professors back in the 1960s. No doubt, and that was still true when I attended the University of Texas at Austin in the early/middle 1970s.

But, later, I got to thinking about a different model. We are obviously living in an era where the political world has become more intractable, so other institutions have a major role to play in resolving large public issues. Or at least moving them ahead.

The realities of today mean that universities have an opening to drive change on numerous fronts, just like many foundations are doing in K-12 education.

A major way for universities to make a difference is through quality research. Think about this issue, as one example. We know that quite a few soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress. Yet what are the characteristics of PTS? What are the best ways to treat it? And how can you make treatments accessible? 

Universities have a big role to play in answering questions like that. The Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas is trying to understand the treatment angle, as are other institutions. 

Here’s another example: What are the best practices for dealing with some of the most challenging K-12 challenges? The Bush Institute, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin’s Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, has been delving into the best practices for middle schools.

Similarly, SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development has ample research into best strategies for teaching reading, among other challenges. 

Collaboration also is part of the way universities can be change agents. I’m tooting our own horn here, but SMU, Syracuse, the University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University and Johns Hopkins University are some of the colleges the Bush Institute has partnered with to explore issues like understanding veterans and expanding best school strategies.

Of course, there are many other partnerships that exist beyond our walls or those of the universities I mentioned. They are going to be even more important as we search for ways to deal with some of our society’s major challenges.

And their contributions can magnify as they partner with foundations to support their work. Foundations have the potential to be game-changers alongside universities, especially as we live in this era of diminished government financial resources.

So, yes, universities are agents of change. They have been that before, but they have the potential to be ever more so as Americans look for solutions.


William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project. And he teaches as an adjunct journalism lecturer at SMU, where he teaches a course on media and politics.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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