2.1 What Does a University Do?

Historical Perspective

Historically, a university is considered an organized group of scholars and students in which the scholars lead the learning process and investigation (i.e., research) and, in essence, taught students to be scholars themselves. In Europe during the medieval times, universities tended to be regionally located and established by local municipal administrations, kings, or the Catholic Church. In early times, the basis for the curriculum was the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music) with the primary purpose of developing well-rounded and well-educated individuals; students could then also study medicine, law, and theology (Haskins, 1923).

Similarly, Tobin (2009) stated that modern public universities in the United States grew to meet the social and economic needs of a state or region. Post– World War II industrial development required a more educated work force. Through a series of commissions, acts, and federal financial aid programs, public institutions of higher education became an accessible mass education system rather than simply a reward for the elite. The nation’s military began funding students and research programs related to mathematics, science, and foreign languages in response to national security concerns after the launch of the Sputnik I satellite by the Soviet Union. At the same time, higher education in the United States has not only had influence on intellectual life, culture, and politics, but also has driven economic development and social mobility. For instance, current data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009) indicate that unemployment rates decrease and annual earnings increase for workers 25 years and older based on the level of educational degree attainment. Also, individuals are more likely to be employed and earn more money if they have attained a post-secondary degree.

As the increase in students from all walks of life came to the university, the need for student affairs and academic support professionals increased to help students meet the transition and demands of college life and continue to allow the faculty to teach and conduct research, all important for a developing country (Tobin, 2009).

Today at UT Arlington

Now that a brief historical and sociological context of higher education has been presented, we can easily see parallels in what we do at UT Arlington. We are proud to have been a part of the neighborhood for more than 120 years, and with an enrollment of almost 40,000, we pride ourselves on teaching students with the intent of developing well-rounded, well-educated citizens of our state, nation, and world. The State of Texas dictates with legislation that all undergraduates complete a General Core Curriculum for that very purpose, and as you can see this tradition dates back to the early European universities that taught in accordance with the trivium and quadrivium. The mission statement of UT Arlington (refer to “Chapter 1: Mission Statement: Our Reason for Being”) stresses the “[…]promotion of lifelong learning[…]the formation of good citizenship[…]fosters unity of purpose, and cultivates mutual respect[…]” (UT Arlington Mission Statement, 2009). The General Core Curriculum—writing, humanities, mathematics, fine arts, social sciences, history, politics, and the sciences—serves to meet these purposes by gaining a breadth of knowledge in areas that are relevant to the world and its citizens. In addition, when we ask employers what they are looking for in new graduates, we often hear that they want students who can think independently and critically, communicate well (both written and oral), solve problems, and interact well with others, which are skills often developed through the General Core Curriculum.

Many students express concerns and annoyance with taking these general core courses again, indicating that they already had the course in high school. What new students need to understand is that information in these courses will not be presented as it was in high school. Dating back to early universities, professors were allowed the freedom to teach the “truth” as their research, texts, and logical reasoning prescribed (Haskins, 1923). Oftentimes in higher level undergraduate majors and graduate level courses, some of the information presented in those courses has actually originated from research that faculty members and their students over the years have conducted. It is not uncommon for a faculty member teaching a course to have also written and published texts that may be assigned as a portion of the course reading.

During their research and scholarship process, your faculty members are creating original works of art, writing, and research in an attempt to convey new understandings of the world around them. They are asking research questions like, Why does this happen?, What would happen if…?, and How can we improve this…? In addition, they express new ideas and images in an attempt to capture more about the human condition and impact the emotions and thoughts of others. University faculty members see that their role in part is to create the next generation of the world’s scholars (Haskins, 1923). It is safe to assume that once certain foundational information is presented that your faculty members may be asking you some of the same questions or encouraging you to engage in similar activities so that you can participate in the creation of knowledge for yourself and others in your classes. These exercises will likely require you, as a student, to engage in your educational process in a much different way than in high school.


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