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In Search of the Big Idea

November 6, 2009

NEW YORK -- Nothing concentrates the mind like a fiscal crisis; or at least that's the hope of higher education leaders.

Gathered here Thursday for the TIAA-CREF Institute's Higher Education Leadership Conference, some of the nation's most prominent figures in postsecondary education wrestled with the central question of their time: What is the future of this thing called college?

What became quickly and painfully obvious in their deliberations is that the center will not hold. In something of an irony, higher education leaders acknowledged here Thursday that the very system that put them in the position to run the nation's colleges and universities is no longer fit to groom their successors or the rest of the U.S. work force. Diminishing state support, a skeptical public pressing for accountability, and dramatically shifting demographics all point toward the necessity for a serious rethinking of the way colleges educate students, according to just about every panelist who spoke at the conference.

The trouble is, no one is quite sure what this new paradigm is going to look like, what it will cost, and -- perhaps most importantly -- who will pay for it.

For Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, the important thing is that the colleges of the future stop trying to one-up each other and start accepting that they have different missions, different audiences and different strengths. Mostly driven by rankings, public colleges in particular are seeking to clone one another in a few select areas of excellence rather than paying attention to the needs of their regions, Crow said.

"We've got everybody trying to be the same thing," Crow told a crowd of fellow presidents, provosts and other administrators. "We don't need three or four models. We need 10 or 15 models."

Crow argued that a stigma has been attached to any college that doesn't fit the traditional model of what institutions are "supposed" to do. Discussing the rankings mania that has gripped many colleges, Crow said, "Their principal task in the world is to pass someone else."

Crow is a practitioner of his own advice, overseeing an explosion of enrollment growth at Arizona State that he says is designed to admit every single qualified student in the state. The 64,000-student institution has tried to move away from the traditional department structure that many now argue creates silos within higher education, opting instead to develop majors and faculty collaborations around themes or ideas rather than subjects. Crow's approach, however, has been viewed with skepticism by some who question whether his stated goal -- 100,000 full-time students -- is practical or desirable for any institution. Indeed, Crow said his critics tell him he's "insane," and that "hopefully they'll lock [him] up" soon.

And therein lies the tug of war within higher education. Innovation is invariably greeted with a mix of applause and raised eyebrows, as an "industry" steeped in tradition seeks to redefine itself for the 21st century. Is the skepticism rightful protection of a system that is the envy of the world or unwarranted protectionism of a system that is built to fail? That's the question college presidents say they're now confronting every day, according to several who attended the conference. It's worth noting, however, that this is essentially the same question colleges have been asking themselves for at least 50 years, according to one college president who attended the conference.

Change may be particularly difficult for the institutions that find themselves at the top of the heap, at least when it comes to the standards that drive rankings. Elizabeth Huidekoper, Brown University's executive vice president for finance and administration, acknowledged as much during a panel discussion Thursday. Indeed, it may be the colleges less married to tradition that produce the most exciting new models, Huidekoper said.

"Brown is going to be the type of place that is going to be much more resistant to change," she said. "I can't wait to see the ones that blow the rest of us away."

So what are the new models under consideration? Most panelists Thursday acknowledged that the current discussions on college campuses are really working at the fringes, and that real transformation is yet to be realized or even truly engaged. There's a lot of talk about making fewer expensive photocopies, but fundamental restructuring is more of a struggle.

On the other hand, a number of presidents seeking more resources have embraced a tried and true mantra: All politics -- including higher education politics -- is local.

That is to say, colleges and universities, particularly public research institutions, need to explain to the public that the professoriate is exploring ideas that have real-world implications for the world in which they live. For Arizona State, that means trying to lower the night-time heat index in Phoenix. For Southern Oregon University, that means informing the public that many of the cultural attractions in Ashland -- the Shakespeare festival, for instance -- were driven by faculty who connected with their community.

Mary Cullinan, president of Southern Oregon, said it's been a struggle to convince the public that the university is a driver for a better quality of life in the region. By developing partnerships with community groups, Cullinan said the university has had greater success proving its worth.

"There was still a perception that we were not part of the community; we were the little liberal arts bastion," she said.

Of course, the challenges differ for differing institutions. Rather than persuade a skeptical legislature of the need for funding, private colleges often have to convince cash-strapped students and their parents that the college offers something unique and worthwhile, said Bobby Fong, president of Butler University. Making that case will be most difficult for high-priced, low selectivity institutions, Fong said. In the current economy, parents and students are less likely to invest in what they perceive to be a "designer" education -- at a less selective or private college-- unless they are confident the student will reap some tangible rewards, he said.

"Liberal education traditionally has been the equivalent of custom-tailored clothes, rather than off the rack," Fong said.

To move forward, liberal arts colleges will have to wrestle with a fundamental rethinking of the traditions that have defined them, Fong said. While the institutions should stay true to mission, Fong hinted that Gothic architecture and ivy may have to give way to chat rooms and message boards.

"What does it mean to teach liberally when you're online?" Fong asked rhetorically.

Just as liberal arts colleges face different challenges, so too do community colleges. What is notable, however, is that the challenges faced by community colleges should rightfully be shared by the most elite private and public institutions, according to Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College. Miami Dade is "serving the students no one else wants to serve," Padron said. Describing his students, Padron noted that two in five of them live in poverty, and three in five are considered low income. More than 80 percent of Miami Dade students are minorities.

"The burden of giving all Americans an opportunity," he said, "should not rely just on institutions like mine."

 

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