Barbara A. Bichelmeyer
Photo: Brandon Parigo

Story: Patricia O’Dell

Survey says: Alumni envisioned year-round classes for all, multiple languages taught, more personalized teaching techniques and a complete overhaul of the public school system.

When asked in our survey which breakthrough they would most like to see by 2050, many alumni gave the same answer: quality education for all. And that’s not just School of Education graduates talking — alumni from schools across campus said the same thing.

As one graduate put it: “[I would like to see] everyone receive the best possible education. I currently pay to send my granddaughter to private school. The quality of education that she is receiving should be the standard, not the exception. It is my hope that UMKC, as an educational institution, will promote and share this dream.”

Interim Chancellor and Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer does share the dream of quality education for all. In fact, she spends a good part of her day talking about it. We sat down with Bichelmeyer to talk about the future of education and what’s next for UMKC.

Why do you say that higher education is in “its most significant transformational moment since its creation?”

For generations, colleges were gatekeepers, ensuring that only those deemed worthy got access to higher learning. Today, we have evolved into bridge-builders, bringing knowledge to everyone, in a variety of ways that make it possible for everyone to access it.

Those of us working in public institutions have an awesome responsibility: to ensure that our entire community has equal access to knowledge. The bridges we build must reach across the many divides in our society — racial, philosophical, social, economic, language and cultural.

How is the “traditional” college experience changing?

Job-specific training programs that don’t confer degrees are becoming more popular. The attraction is undeniable — you spend less than four years learning a trade and typically finish with less debt than someone earning a bachelor’s degree.

The nature of education and learning is very different now as well. The evolution of knowledge is so rapid. The demands of the workplace are evolving just as fast. Lifelong education is becoming the new norm. So we have to build strong and effective bridges to people at every stage of their lives.

What is the value of a four-year college degree?

A true college or university degree is more than just job training. We educate future citizens by providing a core curriculum that preserves and passes on our culture and values to the next generation.

Our graduates are engineers who appreciate great literature, physicians who attend and support symphony and jazz performances, entrepreneurs who are informed voters and involved citizens. Their lives are much richer and more rewarding as a result of their liberal arts education, and the value to society is immeasurable. That’s something that a programming boot camp simply cannot provide.

As technology evolves, why are traditional brick-and-mortar campuses still important?

The heart of an educational experience is to engage with other people in service of one’s own growth and development. That will always be most fully done when we are together, face-to-face, asking difficult questions and having challenging conversations. Technology and online programs allow us to get pieces of that, but not the full experience.

Online education isn’t, by definition, awful or great, and being in the classroom isn’t awful or great. It’s what happens in those spaces and formats that determines the quality of the education.

What is the value of a liberal arts education?

Liberal arts and sciences degrees teach students how to learn. We are preparing people not just for a job, but for a career; preparing them not just to make a living, but to live a life. That’s what liberal arts and sciences do better than any other workforce training does. It teaches people how to think critically, how to communicate with each other, how to consider the place of an individual in society, how to be creative, how to have a difficult conversation in which you might disagree. All of these are really important components of the human experience that are advanced through the liberal arts and sciences.

For UMKC, specifically, what do you think the future holds? What can alumni expect to see in the next decades?

What we are trying to create is a university where students have a more personalized learning experience and much more empowerment in their education. We will do better in supporting our faculty for growth opportunities — helping them learn how to teach and do research in this new space higher education is becoming. Learning is still, and always will be, a human enterprise. We have to find our best ways to support people in that.

When you look at these challenges, is it energizing and exciting, or daunting and exhausting?

Energizing and exciting. I built my career in telecommunications and tech, and I could see that tech was going to change the world, and it was certainly going to change education.

The question is: How can we leverage new technologies to create more personal learning experiences for students? Managing this change is sometimes daunting, but we have great people at UMKC — a phenomenal faculty, staff and leadership team, and a community that wants us to be the best we can be for our students. That commitment from the leaders in our region is exciting and humbling.

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