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So an MIT Dean, Christine Ortiz, is taking a leave of absence to start a new university in a city that badly needs one: Boston.


She wants the Boston campus to be the size of MIT, and to open other campuses in other cities over time. It’ll be nonprofit, and the fundraising hasn’t started yet.


Her vision, as outlined in a brief Chronicle interview, sounds like a whole bunch of research labs. She says it’s “more toward the graduate-education model,” with the entire campus basically becoming a huge interdisciplinary lab. “Lecture” will be virtual and modularized, with the model “very much moving away from tenure.”  

That’s not how I remember graduate education, but never mind that.

Whether the idea is audacious or delusional will become clear over time. But it did get me thinking.

For the past forty years or so, most new colleges were for-profits. The public sector mostly threw in the towel by the mid-1970’s. More community colleges were established in the 1960’s than in the five decades since. More private colleges are going under than starting up. The non-profit sector of higher ed, as a sector, is mature.  It has moved from the exciting phase of investment and growth to a more difficult phase of austerity and scrutiny. Expectations formed during the growth phase can’t be fulfilled. “Kludge,” defined as sedimentary layers of workarounds and adaptations around processes and even personalities, is the normal state of things.  

The prospect of a shiny new kludge-free setting is enticing.  

For a while, the for-profits offered a version of that. They grew quickly, opening up opportunities for a generation of Ph.D.’s that non-profits had largely sacrificed to the convenience of incumbents. For a time, they offered an unlikely port in a storm. But after a while, the compromises built in to the need to meet stockholders’ earnings expectations became unsustainable. Eventually, the mission devoured most of them.

Now, with the for-profits either laying low or circling the drain, the space for innovation is wide open. MOOCs held promise for a bit, though they’ve largely settled into a role of supplementing, rather than supplanting, traditional providers.  Western Governors University and College For America developed to offer intriguing new ways to offer degrees, with very different structures for delivery. But at this point, the green shoots are relatively rare.  

In other words, whether Dean Ortiz’ vision comes to pass or not, it’s a good time to try something new. Somebody has to.

My own vision? I’ll let Dean Ortiz work on the elite end, filling in the yawning chasm between Harvard and MIT. I’m obsessed with helping the students who would never be admitted to either. That means addressing a different set of needs. “Unbundling” may make sense for the student with plenty of cultural and educational capital, but to the first-generation student, it’s disempowering. The key is to start with student needs and build the institution around it.  That’s not how it has been done in the past.

The piece I’ll be watching closely is the funding. Dean Ortiz allows breezily that she hasn’t started fundraising for her MIT-sized university yet, which I found either disingenuous -- Zuckerberg or the Defense Department in her back pocket, say -- or discrediting. But hey, maybe she knows something I don’t. Research universities are her world, not mine.

For the non-elites, the funding question is paramount. The DeVrys of the world addressed that through selling stock; the limits of that strategy have become apparent. Community colleges have relied on public funding, but the past few recessions have shown the limits of that. Philanthropy helps, but rarely at scale. Even Cooper Union had to start charging tuition. If there’s another, better way, I’m all ears.

So good luck to Dean Ortiz. It’s a longshot, but I’m glad to see someone stepping up. I’ll be taking notes...   

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