Universities are a particular type of thread in a neighborhood fabric. In cities, neighborhood is a highly local concept, comprising maybe a few blocks, but not so with Southern, nestled between two rivers, and twice that many cultures. Our university exists on the northern boundary of the Bible belt and the southern boundary of the great industrial Midwest, between powerful rivers that for centuries provided the means for trade and commerce. We bridge the southern culture of states rights and fierce independence, and the northern culture of federalism; the city culture of trade and manufacture, and the rural culture of agriculture.
Our location can make our university special and consequential if we but listen carefully.
Selling short the importance of our positions of utility and service at these confluences diminishes our impact on the world. We can affect our nation by service at home. We must celebrate the idea that our region shapes who we are and what we do and vice versa. We must befriend and be befriended. It makes Southern better. It unites and blends, rather than divides and isolates.
Traditionally universities existed as extensions of clerical order, and the various churches and denominations of faith, Christian and non-Christian. Universities mirrored monasteries. Set apart so students could focus on learning, uninterrupted. How inappropriate isolation is for a public university in the 21st century. From the inside out, and the outside in, effective universities embrace, and are embraced.
A university must be responsive to the environment in which it exists. It must provide opportunities to students so they may obtain credentials and develop competencies that allow them to perform in the workplace and meaningfully contribute to the greater community. This is certainly one of the more important and obvious roles, but only one.
All universities are political organisms, but public research universities in the United States are specifically chartered as such. The importance of focusing public institutions of higher education on critical state and national problems was institutionalized when governments provided resources, land and funding for this purpose. The public service and outreach functions common to universities are almost uniformly expressed as a fundamental aspect of their missions.
Service starts at home at the best universities.
As with all extensions of service, the greatest beneficiary of the service provided is not the individual or the organization served, but the individual or the organization that serves. As Southern Illinois University recognizes the significance of the debt owed to our region, the benefit achieved through serving the people who call Southern Illinois home, the quality of our University will increase in like proportion. Some might believe it will make us parochial, I say it makes us relevant. It is as much a law of the nature of a public university in a free society as the idea that when an apple is cut loose from a tree, it falls to the ground.
Unapplied knowledge is knowledge shorn of its meaning. The careful shielding of a university from the activities of the world around is the best way to chill interest and to defeat progress. Celibacy does not suit a university. It must mate itself with action. –Alfred North Whitehead
Through service we accomplish our academic mission, and improve our neighborhood. When we put our knowledge to work locally, we make our university better nationally and internationally because real need is the best grist for our mill.