• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


The UVa Case as Higher Education's Mount Tabor

I almost began an entry yesterday on the University of Virginia situation.

June 20, 2012
I almost began an entry yesterday on the University of Virginia situation, given the direction of this blog, based on the clause of one sentence in the Chronicle of HIgher Education Monday report about the events there.  The clause was in the "cause" sentence on substantive issues that lay behind the fissure between the Board (or some key members) and the President.  Slipped into the sentence was "the role that technology plays," or something like that, about the more general divide on strategic policy and process.  Needless to say, it piqued my interest in this fascinating turn of events for higher education overall, and, of course, for the UVa community in particular.

I am glad that I waited.  Today IHE reports that distance education, and MOOCs especially, played a very considerable role.  It does not surprise me.  Just an entry or two ago I mentioned the irony emerging on the concept of how technology was to transform education entitled "The Higher Education-Military-Industrial Complex."  As information technologies emerged a generation ago in higher education, we all thought the transformation meant "for the good" and many of us assumed "without changing our existing culture, tradition and models of teaching, learning and research."  Those assumptions were and are mistaken.

Before I go on, let me share my assumptions.  Technology, the tool, does not act alone.  History demonstrates how technology both shapes and is shaped by the full complement of forces that make up civilized existence every minute of every hour: demographics, economic and social relations, governance institutional structures, religion and ideology, culture and climate and natural forces too.  But even as we recognize the complexity of our natural and human-made environment, we also observe that technological change can sometimes take center stage, as it did with guns or the printing press, for example.  In these moments, the connections between how the technology functions and how the society is disrupted become obvious.  Take networks, digitization and personal computers, add file share software to that mix, and poof!  The copyright conundrum shoots out like a rocket.  The entertainment industry, the publishing industry, communications, and now higher education are all in the crosshairs.

Where does traditional, not for profit higher education go from here?  A blog entry can not answer that question, but the target of this one is to point out a few concepts that might be useful in the analysis.  First, we must keep our missions front and center to any further discussion.  We are about serving society, not making profit.  This anxious moment's opportunity is to rediscover the meaning of that principle for ourselves and to educate society about the value of public service.  That message has faded in light of politicians seeking punchy issues, legislators looking for line items to cut in their budgets and even in the ability of donors to make colleges and universities their choice.  Second, we must remember that technology as a tool is subject to our policies writ large about how to exercise our missions.  This observation is pedestrian, but sometimes it is that which is overlooked creates the greatest challenge.

Drilling down from the high points about our missions to the landscape of the campus, the issues may also appear mundane but, like hackneyed observations, explosive in their potential.  Who and how decisions about "technology" are made within an institution are more critical today than ever.  An institution that ignores that reality and marginalizes or technology leadership from strategic direction does so at its peril.  Next come budget models.  The best well laid plans will go the way of mice and men if support does not follow.  Politics within the power structure of the institution quickly follows.  The pattern whereby inspired technology leadership gets scapegoated because he or she did not pull a rabbit out of a hat when deans and department heads failed to provide enough funds for either the rabbit or the hat is legendary in the CIO community in this country.  And it is not always money, but a voice to technology leadership that allows it to exercise influence authority that matters.  Technology leaders worth their salt are not just about network connections, but the skill they should exercise in helping the administration -- including, if not especially, deans -- understand the stakes of inaction and the opportunities that await their schools on the other side change.  Stuffed down the power structure and silenced by the protocols of hierarchical relations means never learning or understanding those opportunities.

Vision.  If one word bubbles to the surface of our keyword analysis, place your chips on that one.  Not Kurzweil scientific vision.  Remember, we are talking about "the Internet" and "technology" as a phenomenon, not just the tubes and processors. Institutional vision integrates the power and potential of technology into achievable strategic goals.  No doubt, higher education will change because of technology.  Everything from classroom instruction through research and certification to revenue flows will go with it.  The choice point is whether we have insightful leadership that will connect all of these dots with an informed vision.

In other entries I have suggested that the Internet, "transfigures" humanity and all of its aspects, here for example, higher education.  Transfigures does not mean transforms, although transfiguration may create change.  Transfiguration is the moment when we see something about ourselves that we had not seen or taken proper note of before.  The moment of transfiguration is upon higher education.  That is what the UVa case is all about.  We are seeing things about higher education that were there all along this past generation, but we have given those aspects insufficient notice or understanding.  The costs of devaluing public service missions.  How funding upsets the delicate balance between Boards and Presidents. ("Nose in, fingers out" was Frank Rhodes metaphor which became noteworthy with good reason, and it should be the case for both public and private institutions.)  "Technology" in the phenomenological sense does play a very significant role in this moment.  Let us not miss this moment to recognize it, strive to understand it, and exploit it in the name of not-for-profit higher education in, but not necessary entirely of, the twenty-first century.


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