• Law, Policy -- and IT?

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


Five Things to Do or Change in Higher Education

No amount of analysis then or now can alter much the march of history.

April 18, 2011

No amount of analysis then or now can alter much the march of history. Had Ancient Rome, for example, not invaded what is now contemporary Iraq, negotiated relationships at its borders instead of reinforcing them militarily, not been so touchy and over-reactive about every little real or perceived slight (take the destruction of the Temple, for just one example), not taxed its middle class out of existence, not put Jesus of Nazareth to death, not allowed the twelve Caesars to rule with unchecked power and reckless abandon, or used clay instead of lead for dishware, maybe it would have survived through the millenniums? Don't count on it. The essential truth is one of social physics: it rose too fast and therefore it was bound to fall very hard. Tinkering even with a few of the factors identified by historians throughout the ages would probably not have changed its course very much.

What a fool's endeavor it is for me, then, to suggest changes in the course of traditional not-for-profit United States higher education. Perhaps, but one must do in one's time what one can, existential realities notwithstanding. So here is my list of the five things to do in name of positive change:

1. Agitate openly and very publicly about the role higher education is designed to play in American culture as social good, doing what it should do best -- educate everyone from boards of trustees to legislatures to its own constituents to society at large about the challenges and the consequences of those challenges if not met in a timely and approrpiate manner. We must come out of the lobbying halls, where our power is minimal anyway, and go with the energy and verve of a proselytizer into the world at large to revive a sense of real purpose about our missions.

2. Collaborate strategically about how to reorganize resources given information and Internet technologies. That which is no longer bound to physical space should ascend to the cloud; that which is should be repackaged within brick and mortar traditions. "What is she talking about?" you might say. Library collections, in the main, go in the first category and meaningful face to face relationships among faculty and students and staff would remain. On a global scale? Just to get the conversation started, what do you think about this idea? http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume41/InCommonTowardBuildingaGlobalU/158051

3. Fix tenure and our aging faculty demographic. I am not calling for an end of tenure, but it is time to lift the totem that surrounds it and encourage serious debate and discourse about what range of incentives, programs and new concepts can be brought to bear on this overly burdensome and resource draining process. The enormity of genuine faculty productivity that is lost in the heavy bureaucracy of a tenure decision is enough to make me cry. And it is time to address the faculty demographic realistically and compassionately. Can't faculty that are truly exhausted from decades of repetitive tasks be offered fresh opportunities to mentor faculty, advise students, architect networks, enhance town-gown relationships, read applications, I don't know, there are a thousand things to be done, but simply keeping us all shuffling along in the same pathways is making me weep. Doesn't that mindless kind of tradition bother you too?

4. Fix peer review and the Absurd Loss of Intellectual Property to Third Party Commercial Entities. If the last item makes me weep, this one turns me into a raving lunatic. Why can't we do our own peer review and publications? Why do we support and then give away our intellectual property only to buy it back at exorbitant prices? It does not have to be this way given supportive technologies and broken chains of distribution that favor new models. We are supposed to have the best and brightest minds around, including in our business schools. Why don't we use them to our advantage to rethink this problem?

Virtually everything about the socialization of academia seems to place faculty on a veritable amusement park ride. Stop the spooky music and get off the plastic cup and saucer! Bring our brains back home. Fix peer review. Stop giving away the store to Elsevier and its ilk. I guess one had to grow up in a restaurant to get this nuts about waste, so excuse my rant, but my father, who never made it out of high school, would have gone out of business if this is how he managed finances. Not-for-profit status does not require us to undermine ourselves, which is exactly what we are doing with these outmoded models and such a ridiculous waste of resources. Tuition rising faster than inflation? Can't offer classes for less than what most people make in a year? The unexamined life is not worth living! Where is the leadership to address this conundrum NOW?

5. Incorporate digital and information fluency in every discipline, in every teaching method, in every classroom. Okay, I am calmer now, don't be afraid, it's okay, you can come closer, dear reader. But I am as serious about this point as I am about any of the others. A concept of digital and information fluency remains for most faculty and administrators a nice flourish. It is, rather, a critical readjustment that must be made in our pedagogy. Too long now I have observed how good to great information competency programs receive only marginal support from provosts and other senior members of the administration. If I were a provost, I would, first, be sure that I had confidence in a sound and invigorating program that combined libraries, information technology, and faculty (including centers of excellence or teaching or whatever the new buzz words are), and second, require every faculty member to go through it. That's correct, every single one. The ones who teach large, lecture classes would go first and then we would work our way through those least engaged with students. BTW, I would tie this effort with item three above. If you are a faculty person too dyed in the wool of yesteryear and don't want to learn new methods (which is not to say giving up time-honored traditions such as the Socratic method and jumping thoughtlessly into a "tweet"), then perhaps it is time for a phased retirement? Broad sweep of a thought, but you get the idea.

Dear reader, Rome was neither built nor declined in a day, and the intellectual pessimist in me is not expecting miracles, but the optimistic Catholic school girl is. If anyone wants to try these ideas, please count me in?


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