Having been a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 15 years, I follow the news from the state closely, and was very disappointed to read about Governor Scott Walker’s plan to make significant changes to state funding for education. Governor Walker said a few things about K-12 education and education in the technical college system, but he also said this about how the state should judge the performance of its public universities:
In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?
This approach is wrong for four fundamentally important reasons:
First, economically, the “Walker Plan for Higher Education” seems to be premised on increasing the efficiency of the pipeline from higher education to the economy. But the assumption made by Governor Walker that the state can predict which programs of study would be most beneficial for the state’s economy is false, as demonstrated by some spectacular counterexamples.
Carly Fiorina, one of the most important women in American business today, majored in medieval history and philosophy. Current or recent chief executive officers for some of the most successful companies in the American economy were liberal arts majors, including history (John Loose of Corning and Sam Palmisano of IBM), sociology (Bradbury Anderson of Best Buy), philosophy (Carl Icahn of just about everything, but also currently a major stakeholder in Netflix), economics (Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and Donald Trump of, well, Donald Trump), and Asian studies (Sue Krosnick of Federated Department Stores). It’s not just business leaders who majored in the liberal arts. Many in government, including several Supreme Court justices, were liberal arts majors as well. Elena Kagan, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor all majored in history.
Second, the “Walker Plan” is wrong philosophically. Governor Walker’s political party has emphasized its opposition to allowing the government to “pick winners and losers,” rather than allowing the free market to do so. If a state agency is charged with the selection of academic programs for which students would be eligible for state funding, the state would be responsible for picking “winners and losers” in higher education. This is reminiscent of a Soviet model of education in which the state paid for students’ education and then assigned graduates to their first jobs, at which they were legally obligated to work for a number of years.
Governor Walker has yet to identify the agency charged with the task of identifying the programs eligible for funding or the criteria according to which the selection would be made. Still, I wonder if those making such choices will have the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to make wise decisions when confronted with complex datasets. I wonder if the study of Arabic or Pashto would have seemed worthy of funding in Wisconsin in the year 2000, or even 2002, given that a commitment to understanding the regions where these languages are spoken may seem more like a national concern than a concern of the state of Wisconsin. Of course, we have no federal university to address federal concerns: all our public institutions of higher education are state-based institutions. I wonder who Governor Walker will tap to predict what Wisconsin’s (or our nation’s) strategic needs will be 20 years from now, because if you decide to fund a university program now, you must be prepared to spend at least that long building up the expertise to make that program a success.
Third, Governor Walker’s proposal will not help students. It will hurt them. As a college dean, I have seen far too many students miserable because they are majoring in a course of study for which they have no intellectual passion only because their parents believe that program is linked to a well-paid career track. These students, almost uniformly, fail to excel. Students who major in programs for which they have great passion get higher grades and establish better relationships with their faculty mentors. They find it easier to move forward from graduation to a job or postgraduate study because they have a record of success in college.
Fourth, and most importantly, I object to Governor Walker’s proposal because it rises from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the purpose of the liberal arts in higher education. We are not training students for a job. We are training students for a lifetime of jobs, for a career, and for their best job by providing them with an education that emphasizes the development of critical thinking about challenging and complex problems, creative problem-solving, effective communication in speech and writing, ethical reasoning and compassion, the ability to work with diverse partners, the skills to use technology wisely, and the foundation to participate fully in our American democracy.
Some experts predict that today’s young people will change jobs more than a dozen times during the course of their working lives and that many of those job changes will be career changes. We should focus on teaching our students, not facts that they can memorize and regurgitate, but skills they can use to analyze an ever-changing array of data, construct sound arguments on the basis of those data, and communicate those arguments effectively.
Benjamin Rifkin is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey.
Benjamin Rifkin is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey.
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher of the State University of New York (SUNY) has added a new word to Wikipedia. While she was an English major in college, creating new words is not typically how she spends her time. But this particular word, “systemness,” has uncommon utility for her, as she presides over a 64-campus system of public higher education in a time of austerity politics. In fact, she thinks that proof of this concept has the potential to ensure opportunities for affordable postsecondary education not only in New York, but in states around the country, including my adopted state of Wisconsin.
By rethinking the traditional models of governance in which institutions exist primarily for themselves and in pursuit of their own prestige, Zimpher is encouraging colleges and universities to gather on a broader, connected playing field where serving students is the name of the game.
While this idea might sound old-fashioned to some people, given that it doesn’t explicitly involve MOOCs or other “hot” ideas, I find much to like about it. As I listened to Zimpher talk through her ideas during a recent visit to UW-Madison, I was struck by the familiarity of this territory. Ever since writing my dissertation on “swirling students” (those who attend multiple colleges and universities in pursuit of a degree), I have put the phrase “system of higher education” in quotations because institutional culture in the United States hardly reflects systems thinking at all.
Each school acts in a hypercompetitive, prestige- and resource-seeking space that feels almost Darwinian -- each striving to be the best and allowing those falling behind to simply die away. Given the tremendous potential supply of college-goers most public institutions enjoy, their adherence to this approach is remarkable. Instead of flagships working in tandem with sister schools to find places for each of the state’s high school graduates, they try to hog as many resources as possible, leaving other campuses to struggle with less. The greater good suffers.
So in theory, the idea of systemness sounds nice, promoting collaboration across campuses to coordinate program offerings and services, striving for common goals, and working together to count student successes as mutually beneficial. It is an idea borrowed from health care delivery, where so many notions of reform for higher education seem to develop.
But I have to wonder, who really wins? Do the smaller public comprehensives or community colleges really gain, or do the flagships and large urban universities continue to dominate? I am skeptical. Without specific provisions to protect against it, I am betting winners in the current system still manage to take all. It’s just too easy, even in a connected system, to downplay the players with less prestige. In other words, the system can bring everyone to the same table, but those whose voices are privileged, unless actions are specifically taken to disregard or reduce that privilege, will drive the conversation.
To be honest, really reaching the goals of systemness requires that Zimpher do more than coordinate SUNY’s 64 campuses. She must grab ahold of the current prestige drivers (inputs like student test scores, research dollars, percent of tenured faculty) and flip them, elevating the work of schools that really achieve New York’s goals. Since resources are obviously constrained, now and in the foreseeable future, this may mean pulling back a bit on the funds now flowing to the currently prioritized institutions.
Instead, the colleges and universities that welcome all state residents at whatever quality of education they managed to secure in high school and help them learn at the next level, the universities whose faculty go out and actively solve the problems New Yorkers confront in their daily lives, and the institutions that produce the most effective teachers who help New York’s kids flourish — these places should realize elevated voices and status in a renewed system.
Such institutions reject the notion of “higher” education and instead work at the “postsecondary” level -- they are workhorses in the creation of citizens for active democracies, picking up directly where high schools leave off (and indeed, wherever they leave off). Per-student funding needs to be higher where this kind of work occurs, not lower. Faculty should be tenured primarily for their excellence in teaching and service to the state, rather than the number of research articles published in barely-read academic volumes. And the value of degrees produced should be measured in terms of meeting the needs of a democracy, which requires teachers and social workers and writing tutors, not solely the high-tech employees that propel today’s economy.
It’s a big, audacious task and a controversial one. Zimpher seems inclined to try to do it really well — for example, next month she’s hosting a conference where both proponents and critics of systemness will get together to argue over the concept’s value. Personally, I’m rooting for Zimpher and her word — if she can make it happen, the truly student-focused educators among us who reside in the nation’s so-called systems of public higher education will applaud.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.