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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

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

Get Off the Ropes!
September 20, 2010 - 12:00pm

Not-for-profit higher education faces numerous and serious challenges in contemporary global society: international competition in its “marketplace;” reduced government support for expanded access; quality education for both younger and older generations of learners; the growth of for-profit companies, institutes and programs encroaching on its traditional sphere; and, most important, low morale and a corresponding lack of commitment to its particular missions: to teach, research and to improve society through education, its processes as well as its creative works and discoveries.

Smart, dedicated people in America’s colleges and universities, its associations and affiliates, struggle daily with these challenges. Often that struggle results in unheralded successes everyday in classrooms – remote and face-to-face – around the world. Creativity abounds with new structures and approaches to learning. (See “The Future of Higher Education” Authors create works, scientists make discoveries, innovations and patents abound. But it is still not enough.

A spirit of intransigence that depresses the intelligence among otherwise very smart people, the absence of a will to make the effort, and a lacuna of truly inspired leadership hampers change. Yet so much is in the pipe line and on the margins within us. Access to resources, openness of materials, opportunities for collaboration, deployment of new models of bundling and unbundling of resources at every level of the educational stack -- from the network up through learning management systems through complex distance and distributed degree programs together with a renewed commitment to learning on the part of both teachers and students -- are for the offing. What is higher education going to do with these disparate opportunities?

It is time for higher education to get off the ropes and bounce back as a leader in shaping our future world. Higher education requires a quality of leadership that takes its missions and institutions to the true next level. Only those genuinely engaged in the world’s challenges will make that mark. The relationship between the two, higher education and the world outside of the tower, could not be more critical at this time, if for no other reason than technology. What have become bromides about how the Internet has connected, flattened and disrupted the globe pertains. We already are, and can realize more fully, the bridge that we are to the world via networking technologies. The world’s opportunities and challenges are higher education’s challenges: serious and consequential tensions between old and new schools of thought, policy and effective action in environmental sustainability, global allocation of resources, and international relations are issues that must be addressed by the academy as well as the world. At the core of these efforts are our disciplines, the sciences and engineering, social sciences and the professions, arts and humanities. In our hallowed halls we have people who know something about those areas. But higher education has tended to bury itself in its disciplines. The 19th Century German model for the university no longer comports with what the world needs from higher education and what higher education needs and should want for itself in the 21st Century. Ask most students who sit in passive lecture halls what really gets their blood flowing. All too often, sadly, it is not the mainstay of most underclassmen, undergraduate education as it exists currently. But increasingly it is the world and its issues. In thirty years of work in higher education, I have never known a generation more inclined to want to be an active player in the world around them. Whether we in higher education provide students with the support and tools that they desire to make that happen is, or at least should be, a matter of concerted self-introspection and vigorous debate in global society.

Expertise alone is not what recommends higher education to the world outside its walls. It is our missions, their dynamic as well as their tangible outcomes. No other entity can say that it exists for the very purpose of creating the conditions to make the world a better place. Education in general, and higher education in particular (which, for all intents and purposes, is the “new normal” baseline requirement for citizens of a participatory democracy in the 21st Century), connects the socializing dots between an unformed person and a productive citizen. The true rendering of its missions transforms the individual and the community. A life-enhancing ethic is embedded in it. That is what makes the heart pump faster; direction for that passion that is what students want and need from us.

I believe so strongly in this ideal, I confess I can barely tolerate watching the degradation of higher education in American politics anymore. Perhaps because my work brought me into closer proximity to it, the attempt at public humiliation by legislators and content owners in the heated midst of the copyright paroxysms of this last decade is an example, and it nearly did me in. Not because of the usual hash of politics such as misleading statistics and displaced anxieties. What took my breath away was the sense that the meaning of higher education as a social good appeared lost at every turn of public relations crank.

Nel mezzo del cammine di nostra vita. Has higher education lost its way? Despite its best intentions and efforts on the part of the so many people dedicated to it, has it failed American society? Is it now only a market share to grab, the producer of content to be stolen, or, worse yet, taken for granted, a target for angry politicians and business people, an eddy into which states, parents and students throw money, a series of bucolic physical plants to admire but not institutions worthy of central cultural respect?

No, not fundamentally. It does require a serious rethinking of how it achieves its goals, but it has not lost its way. The academy must begin to separate the meaning of those goals from the institutions that currently house them. We must distinguish between existing structures and the real purpose of teaching, learning and outreach in a world whose needs are in proportion of our awareness of them. To accomplish this revision requires leadership. Big leadership.

It is time for higher education to get off the ropes and return to its foundational purposes. It is time for a quality of leadership that will re-educate and inspire in the rest of society – corporations, government and the populous – an effective understanding about the central role that higher education plays in fostering an innovative, just and open society. It is time for higher education to rise and assert its leadership as a key arbiter in the international community.

Go ahead, call me a higher education fundamentalist.


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