Time for Change

Given the critical need for change in American higher education, many schools would gain a strategic advantage if they genuinely provide connections between educating for the liberal arts and the professions.

November 5, 2012

In the opening entry to this blog, I made the case for a higher ed “mash up” –  blending the liberal arts with professional training.  In this entry, I examine the critical need for change in American higher education.  In response to this call for change. I contend that many schools would gain a strategic advantage if they genuinely provide connections between educating for the liberal arts and the professions.

“In this day of unparalleled activity in college life, the institution which is not steadily advancing is certainly falling behind.” One might think that this is just the challenge that higher education needs in the 21st century.  Perhaps, but this call for action was given by James B. Angell at his inaugural address as he assumed the presidency of the University of Michigan in 1871 (quotation from The Campus: A Study of Contemporary Undergraduate Life in the American University by Robert Cooley Angell).  If President Angell saw a storm coming nearly 150 years ago, those calling for change in higher education today see a potential tsunami.

Despite many challenges and pressures throughout its history, the traditional model for higher education in America has not changed significantly.  In Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities, Richard DeMillo suggests that without sufficient competition until recently, higher education has not been challenged to change.

Traditional higher education in the United States might benefit from examining the American automobile industry. There was a time when gas guzzling cars that were replaced on a three-year cycle was the dominant model for transportation in the U.S.  The introduction of cars from Japan, the Arab oil embargo, and concerns about global warming were what Clayton Christensen has identified as “disruptive” forces that resulted in tactical changes on the part of the American automobile industry, but not a significant re-thinking or re-structuring.  The industry has suffered as a result, most recently turning to the U.S. government for a bail out. 

Christensen has examined many industries where there was, at least for a time, a dearth of “disruptive competition.”  Recently, Christensen and Eyring turned their attention to the potential for “disruptive innovation” in American higher education (The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out). They make the case that recent events – online learning, financial changes, and more – have changed the outlook for higher education and that “for the vast majority of universities change is inevitable.”

David Scobey calls this “a Copernican moment” in higher education – a “revolutionary moment when a new paradigm feels necessary and imminent” (“A Copernican Moment: On the Revolutions in Higher Education” from Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory that Compels and Practices That Succeed, edited by Donald W. Harward).   He cites financial forces for change in higher education, including the reliance on part-time and contingent faculty labor, “credit shopping” and incentivizing students to make instrumental choices, and reamplifying class divide.  Scobey also identifies challenges to the legitimacy of the current structure of higher education, including “hyperspecialized” scholarship, a destabilization of the organization around disciplines, and a gap between the professoriate and the public.

Scobey characterizes the traditional model of higher education that clearly is tired and challenged by today’s innovations:  “That ‘official’ model took as normative an undergraduate regime of full-time postsecondary students and full-time tenure-stream faculty; a four-year, two-stage course of study in which general education segues into advanced majors defined by disciplinary specializations; a curriculum segmented into fungible units of labor, effort, and time called courses, credit hours, and semesters; a campus world segregated into academics and extracurricular student life.”  He goes on to make the argument that conditions no longer support this paradigm:  “only about one-third of undergraduates are recent high school graduates, attending a single four-year institution; twice as many faculty work on term contracts than in tenure-stream positions.  The for-profit sector is burgeoning, as is online learning across all sectors.”

Perhaps the wealthiest and most prestigious institutions can ignore these forces for change, but most of American higher education will have to reform or be replaced.  There are many directions in which to turn.  One strategic direction that I am advocating in this blog is to support and then highlight how traditional higher education blends a liberal education with professional training.  In future blog entries, I will examine best practices in blending liberal education with professional training and how the latest disruptions in higher education impact my case for a higher ed “mash up.”

William H. Weitzer is currently a Senior Fellow at the Spencer Foundation.  After completing his Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology, he has served for thirty years in administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Wesleyan University, and Fairfield University.


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