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  • Getting to Green

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

Healing ourselves
December 10, 2008 - 5:49pm

The sustainability crisis, the economic crisis, the fact that the US Chamber of Commerce (among other bad actors) is trying to sell the only political leadership we've got on the idea that the economic crisis means that we shouldn't have to deal with the sustainabilty crisis (when just the opposite is more like the truth) ... all of these are indicators of just how deeply systemic our real problems are, and how much we need to reinvent our systems and our paradigms to get out of the mess we're in. (Paradigms first, or the new systems end up being just slightly more efficient versions of the old ones.)

While it's useful for colleges and universities (ACUPCC signatories or not) to model how to reduce GHG emissions in a large, complex organization, it would be far more useful for higher ed to start preaching the gospel of reinvention. Sure, we'll have to figure out how to make it attractive to the donor class (who, almost by definition, prospered under the old paradigm and don't see a lot wrong with it). But, when you come right down to it, what's more mythically American than the ability to reinvent yourself? And if reinventing an individual is good, how can reinventing an organization -- or even a whole social structure -- be less than heroic?

On a very practical level, there's no better time for IHEs to reinvent themselves than right now. Think about it -- a lot of schools are wondering how they're going to afford to keep the doors open, with the way things are going and the way the economy looks. If necessity is the mother of (re)invention, right now she's looking about 8 1/2 months pregnant.

Look at the top three articles in today's (Dec. 10) daily update. Syracuse is asking for money to help keep the students they've already got. Brandeis professors are considering taking a pay cut to help keep the staff they've already got. Things are getting so bad that people are finally starting to pay attention to Leon Botstein (Bard College) and his crazy ideas about how the purpose of a university is to educate people, not to build an endowment.

This last bit -- since we're going to have trouble bringing in money, let's think about how we can do more with less -- is what reinvention is all about. And if colleges and universities are going to talk the talk of reinvention, maybe a couple of us should start walking it, as well.

Be honest. I've done it. You've done it. We've all -- at one time or another, maybe after n + 1 beers -- waxed philosophical about how we would design the perfect college, the perfect educational experience, given only the funding and a little bit of time. Familiarity, it's said, breeds contempt, and each of us is very familiar with at least one existing institute of higher education and so in possession of at least one model of what we'd do differently. Some of us have even outlined what that perfect (or at least markedly better) college would look like; most of those outlines (of course) never see the light of day.

But, as I mentioned a few months ago, one brave soul is making his outline (complete with annotations and explanatory narrative) public. When we last saw Vance Fried and his model of a value-designed undergraduate education, the full report was still in the future tense. But sometime between then and now, potential became actuality. Fried's report is available from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (Maybe it's just my accommodation to the irony of the age, but I always feel vaguely threatened when I hear an organizational title as "Mom and apple pie" as that one.)

You should read it. (I seem to be assigning a lot of outside reading lately, have you noticed?) You may or may not like it. Fried claims to be able to deliver (at least on paper, and subject to a number of assumptions) a first-class undergraduate experience at an annual per-student cost of $7,376. In my state, that's less than half the full cost of attending a public university.

Of course, to get down to that number, Fried has to assume (or design) away a lot of the features of current undergraduate education. His "value engineering" approach aims to eliminate only those pieces of the picture which are high-cost and low-value, but such judgements are always subjective. Truth be told, Fried's left in a lot more real education (as opposed to training) than I would have expected, and he states right up front that this is his particular college model -- other folks would (and should) make other choices. And you have to give him credit -- he's proven himself willing to share his personal vision with the world when a lot of us stick ours in a desk drawer and think about it only rarely.

The reason you should read Fried's paper isn't because you should agree with it, or disagree with it. The reason you should read it is because it's an example of the profound kind of reinvention US higher education needs, if we're going to model sustainability (economic and social, as well as ecological) to the nation and the world. If you find yourself getting a bit uncomfortable, don't say I didn't warn you. But being a bit uncomfortable is probably a good thing, if substantive reinvention is the aim. And if you don't think we need to do that -- out of enlightened self-interest if for no other reason -- go back and read what Dean Dad has to say on the subject.


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