• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Title

C into U doeth go

There are two trends sweeping society which bother me no end. One is for otherwise estimable publications (I've counted six, to date) to print "lead" as the past tense of the verb "to lead" (as in "... by the nose"). The other is for colleges to magically transform themselves into universities.

May 13, 2009
 

There are two trends sweeping society which bother me no end. One is for otherwise estimable publications (I've counted six, to date) to print "lead" as the past tense of the verb "to lead" (as in "... by the nose"). The other is for colleges to magically transform themselves into universities.

There's been a pattern of colleges growing into universities for well over a century. As institutions of higher ed add diverse programs and degree offerings, they take on the character of universities and, in time, the label. Greenback University began life as a college with a different name.

A university is, on average, bigger than a college. (The exception: my daughter was told, at a campus she visited, "we're not a small college, we're a really tiny university.") But they're not always better. That is, they're not better at all things, or for all purposes. Universities are better at graduate education, and at research. As in any skilled trade, the more you do something, the better you get at it, and universities do a lot of graduate education and research. But universities have dealt with the growth and specialization inherent in graduate education and research by cell division. (Mitosis, meiosis, whatever.) Real universities aren't colleges, because real universities contain colleges. Colleges which differentiate themselves by specializing in something that their counterparts aren't specializing in. Colleges which defend their relative autonomy by emphasizing their separateness.

And that's the problem with universities. Not just the disciplinary silo-ing of knowledge on which I've commented (negatively) before, but the separateness and autonomy of the major organizational components. Greenback University has difficulty doing strategic planning, and implementing institutional initiatives, and changing its way of doing business because -- in a political sense -- Greenback University doesn't really exist. What exist are the colleges within the university; the university is just a legal fiction created to satisfy local corporation law and sponsor sports teams.

Colleges are much more agile at planning and implementing behavioral change not just because they're smaller (although I'm sure that helps). Colleges are more agile because they're more unitary. Colleges are the small, warm-blooded mammals whose brains might not be bigger than a walnut, but compared to whose body mass a walnut was of reasonable size. By comparison, universities (certainly "multiversities") are ... well ... you get the picture.

I know that private colleges want to mutate into universities for the prestige that term connotes. And I suspect that state colleges want to become universities because state universities get more money. But I'm afraid that this trend is the higher educational equivalent of "longer, lower, wider" -- it creates more status, but not more objectively measurable value. And it creates an institution which has the agility of an aircraft carrier.

I'm not entirely without hope. For all the colleges which are transforming themselves into universities, I know that the inverse transformation is also possible. The College of Wooster was once, I believe, the University of Wooster -- the exception which proves the rule. I'd feel better about this exception, though, if it weren't the only one of its kind. To the best of my knowledge, though, it is.

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