Commentary by Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D.


Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D., Chancellor, University of Massachusetts DartmouthUmass Dartmouth logo

Today’s graduates will face a hyper-connected, rapidly changing economy and looming global challenges. Over the course of their lives, college graduates will hold nearly 20 jobs in five different industries, including industries that do not yet exist. Within 15 years, nearly half of today's jobs will be lost—not to overseas labor markets or immigrants, but to machines.

If Massachusetts is to retain its leadership position in innovation, it is no longer good enough for higher education institutions, both public and private, to meet the needs of present-day people and their employers. We must anticipate future needs; failure to do so is educational malpractice.

We must equip college students to thrive and compete for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies not yet invented, to solve problems not yet identified. That means giving them more than a skillset. We need to give them an agile mindset underpinned bya sense of resilience and optimism.  These will drive learners to be entrepreneurial and innovative, constantly adding value in the workplace and strengthening the civic fabric of their community.

Most of our colleges and universities are not prepared to meet this challenge. In order to prepare students, they must begin by transforming themselves into agile universities.

The agile university creates cultures that embrace and reward risk taking. They value their students’ future more than their old traditions. At UMass Dartmouth, we recently set aside our traditional teacher training program to work with Fall River Public schools to develop a teaching corps equipped to add value in a challenging urban setting. We structured the financial aid program to incentivize graduates to stay in Fall River schools for four years, confronting the teacher retention problem facing urban schools across the state and country.

The agile university accelerates faculty creativity and innovation. Today, both in the private and public sector, development of academic programs to meet emerging demands of students and the needs of employers can take years. The economy is moving too fast for that. We will soon confront this challenge at UMass Dartmouth by identifying people in our region who began but never finished college, and then offering them a new “academy” that helps them complete their program and start adding new value to the communities.

The agile university rewards value creation. The primary objective of higher education is to impart knowledge and to teach students to think critically and solve problems. At Morehouse College, I received a wonderful liberal arts education, but I was not intentionally taught  to create new value for my future employer or my community. At UMass Dartmouth, we are developing a “boot camp” that will guarantee our students graduate with a value creation mindset that they will take with them from job to job, from industry to industry.

So, as we consider the well-deserved innovation ranking of Massachusetts, we must be ever-vigilant. Retaining our enviable standing will require that our higher education institutions, and those who govern them, strive every day to unleash the creative talent within them.

Robert E. Johnson is the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and can be found at