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Think things are bad in higher ed? Imagine the theater world. Its primary audience, older adults, is the least likely to return to plays or musicals. Virtually its entire workforce is unemployed, without a paycheck and, in many instances, without benefits. The industry’s future is bleak.

The New York Times recently asked theater critics, producers, directors, and actors to suggest ways to rescue the theater.

The suggestions: greater accessibility and affordability. More diversity. A federal bailout. National funding for the arts. Sound familiar, higher ed?

Then there are the more radical and provocative ideas: break free from the canon. Perform more works by African American, Asian, Latinx, and other underrepresented playwrights. Revive plays from the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts movement. Push boundaries with more edgy and wildly eccentric work. Experiment with profit-sharing arrangements (like the income-share agreements that Silicon Valley touts).

Then there are suggestions that range from the naïve, the silly, the utopian and the irrelevant: performances in the streets. Performances and discounts exclusively for particular audiences. Food and drinks sold during the performances. Term limits for theater management.

Three aspects of the recommendations stand out. First, the contributors conflate theater with Broadway and ignore the places where cutting-edge innovations were already taking place: Off-Broadway and in small and black box theaters in towns across the country. A bit like confusing the Ivy League with higher education.

Second, the critics ignore the fact that theater is a large industry with hundreds of thousands of employees onstage and off. No one is going back to crowded Broadway theaters any time soon. Theater income will be depressed for a long time to come. We need to find alternate employment for those who now have no livelihood -- much as we need to do for adjuncts and the ever-mounting numbers of newly minted Ph.D.s.

Third, the recommendations reek of political posturing, rather than realistic solutions to a calamitous reality.

The only realistic short-term answer is obvious: streaming.

Partner with the streaming services, as Hamilton did with Disney+, and partner with schools and colleges and universities. Bring theater to the people, rather than people to the theater. Cultivate audiences with more diverse and targeted fare.

The intimacy of the theater will be reserved for a small audience of socially distanced risk takers, at least for now. But the craving for entertainment won’t slacken, and it’s up to the creatives and the business folk to imagine new ways capitalize on that demand.

What does this have to do with higher ed?

We, too, are witnessing a host of visionary, transformative, eccentric, quixotic, grandiose and half-baked ideas:

  • Unbundling, allowing students to pay for only those offerings that they actually want.
  • Course sharing, alleviating the need for every campus to offer its own version of commodity classes.
  • Quicker, cheaper alternatives to degrees, like professional certificates and certifications.

Unlike the theater world, we don’t have to worry about audience development. Our students (and their parents) have proven themselves willing to go deeply into debt even for a much attenuated version of college.

Nor is higher education’s fiscal state quite as dire as the theater’s -- which is not to say that it isn’t grim. Far too many adjuncts and staff members have lost jobs. Yet while some faculty have lost benefits or pay raises, most are among the privileged minority of adults who can work from home.

Like the Times’ contributors, we can view the current crisis as an unmatched opportunity to put our pipe dreams into practice. We can -- and should -- lobby for government aid. But what we really need to do is the hard work of addressing higher education’s biggest challenges in a context of resource constraints.

How so?

1. The Business Model Challenge

Both public and private nonprofits need a more stable and sustainable financial model, which will necessarily require a combination of cost savings, higher student retention rates and revenue enhancements.

Across-the-board cuts generally make little sense, no matter how politically expedient. Optimizing course offerings makes much more sense economically. So do investments with a high likelihood of paying off, including investments in high-demand programs and initiatives that target new audiences.

2. The Student Satisfaction Challenge

We need to increase student satisfaction. Some carefully targeted reductions in tuition and fees may be necessary, but our institutions really need to think about how to enhance the student experience.

Some solutions strike me as sensible. Place students in cohorts and learning communities and interest groups so that they can develop a sense of connection and belonging. Increase mentoring by faculty and staff. Ensure that students take at least one very small seminar every semester. Embed more high-impact practices into the student experience and expand experiential learning opportunities, including virtual internships and study abroad opportunities.

3. The Political Challenge

It’s long been said that Harvard’s budget model was simple: “Each tub on its own bottom.” This explained why some units teemed with resources while others struggled. But this approach is not confined to Harvard: it pervades higher education, with neighboring institutions competing with one another for resources and political support in ways that are destructive.

We’d do much better to coordinate along the lines of Houston GPS. Neighboring two- and four-year public institutions agreed to align curricula, agree on common degree maps, eliminate barriers to credit transfer, adopt math pathways tied to specific majors and careers, replace remedial and developmental courses with co-requisite courses, and implement a common data infrastructure to identify curricular bottlenecks.

I’d urge them to go even further, by creating a credentials marketplace, so that potential students could easily identify pathways to their desired career destination.

Cross-institutional coordination makes it far easier for these institutions to lobby the city, county and state for resources.

It’s funny. We urge our students to engage politically: to inform themselves about issues and policy proposals, register to vote, and become more active citizens.

But oughtn’t we to do something similar on our campuses -- better understand our institution’s financial health? Shouldn’t faculty acquire a firm grasp about their institution’s enrollment and student retention trends, its revenue and cost structure, assets and debt, and reliance on international and out-of-state students?

Concerted collective action beats grumbling and complaining every day.

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