This article first appeared in the April 30, 2015 Fennimore Times as part of its “Buzz About Town” series. It is reprinted here with permission from Fennimore Times Editor Rob Callahan.
It was a sunny day in 1985. I was eating lunch in my University of Illinois at Chicago office. I wasn’t happy. I hated big city living. My post-doctoral research on light activation of chloroplast enzymes was progressively proving the hypothesis long-championed by my mentor and employer to be false. I did not like laboratory work. However, the plant science community was enthralled with the emerging field of molecular biology, and prospects for a job as a whole plant physiologist were dim. I had received interviews, but no offers.
But most depressing was the sudden realization that my plan to be a professor and research scientist was not, and never would be, of any direct benefit to the people and communities I most love. My rural family, rural people, and the Midwest places they live. I realized my work was completely, totally, utterly, and disappointingly irrelevant to me and to the people in my life who mattered.
My professional salvation started a year later with a full-time teaching job at a regional university in Missouri. Goodness knows why they hired me. I possessed no teaching experience. But they took a chance and I will be forever grateful. It changed my life.
I loved teaching. It’s a challenging, all-consuming occupation, but one with great reward and obvious relevance. Teachers and staff members help students learn knowledge, skills, and dispositions which, if applied, will support those students’ pursuit of professional success and personal satisfaction. Later I became engaged in university administration and loved that work too. It’s also rewarding and relevant.
But my search for relevance to rural people and communities was not complete. You see, teaching and learning is always relevant for students, but the work of a college or university is not always relevant to the communities which surround it.
If the student body is drawn from outside an institution’s region, or, if the graduates generally leave that region, is the college or university as relevant to its local communities as it could be? No.
If the research, scholarship, and outreach of the faculty predominantly focus on addressing academic, state, national, or global concerns rather than local concerns—as was the case for my work in Chicago in 1985, is the college or university as directly relevant to its local communities as it could be? No.
If the student body is drawn from local communities and graduates generally return to work in those same communities, and, if the research, scholarship, and outreach of the faculty predominantly focus on addressing the concerns of local organizations and people, is the college or university as relevant to its local communities as it could be? Yes!
It took me twenty-six years, counting from that 1985 lunchtime epiphany, but at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College I found a college relevant not only to students, but also to the rural people and communities which surround it.
Please do not understand this as a condemnation of the five fine universities where I previously worked or of my outstanding former colleagues. Based on unique location, history, mission, and circumstances, each college and university chooses the communities to which it wishes to be relevant. And, everyone who works in higher education has plenty of choice with regard to the type of college or university that best reflects personal preferences and notions about relevance.
Humankind needs diversity in higher education. Our global workforce needs people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions gained in all sorts of different programs, including graduate, professional, baccalaureate, associate, diploma, certificate, continuing education, and training programs. We also need people and institutions capable of conducting the scholarship, research, and outreach needed to address the myriad of concerns within academic, scholarly, global, national, state, and local communities.
But Southwest Tech is my kind of place. Paul Gabriel, Executive Director for the District Boards Association, said, “Think about it. It does not matter who you are, how old you are, where you come from, how well- or how under-prepared you are, what your economic status is, or whether or not you have made a few mistakes in your life. The doors to your local technical college are open to you.” Inside are education and training programs leading to good or better jobs. Inside are dedicated faculty and staff members to guide, teach, and support you. Thanks to taxpayers, it’s affordable. Most students come from Southwest Wisconsin. Most return to work or run businesses in Southwest Wisconsin.
But the relevance does not end with students. At Southwest Tech, employers, communities, and other organizations find skilled workers, training for current workers and volunteers, and technical assistance to address matters of concern.
Southwest Wisconsin Technical College serves and is relevant to the students, employers, people, and communities of its District. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to end my career in exactly the sort of college in which I should have been working all along. Thank you.