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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).

Letterman and His Lists Have Nothing Over Me!
April 17, 2011 - 9:15am

The nascent (and in upstate New York, I do mean nascent) spring weather reminds me of many past seasons. This year, prompted by everything from the NITLE discussions concerning liberal arts education to the proliferation of NACUA posts about one regulation or another, I am put in mind of 1981, the spring I graduated from college, and the conversation I had with the President Sproull of the University of Rochester. When I asked him what path I should take to work in higher education administration, and what he would have done differently with his own career (which was stellar), he said, "go to law school." Elaborating in order to pick me up metaphorically from the floor from the shock of such apparent incongruity, he said, "The government is increasingly intertwined with higher education. In order to be a good administrator, one needs to know law." I set my sights that day, with acceptance to graduate school in hand, for law school. When I graduated from law school (having already completed a doctorate in history), I sent him a note of thanks.

President Sproull could not have been more prescient. Ask anyone in a higher education association or government affairs administration about it and here is what in a nutshell they likely respond: regulation has an increasingly tight stranglehold on our institutions. It is a relationship born out of the greatness of our history. In the military-industrial complex of Eisenhower's world, higher education acted as a supporting pillar. Gobs of money flowed from government to institutions in the form of the G.I. benefits and research grant money, followed later by financial aid from the original Higher Education Act and then yet more research funding. Research institutions rose to unparalleled heights measured in output as well as in the realization of the democratic ideals in education; free speech and open inquiry advanced the acquisition of information, the creation of knowledge and the development of all areas of learning and not least science, technology and innovation that sent man to the moon and the middle class up the social ladder. Toward the end of the century, as U.S. hegemony faltered, the world still looked to its higher educational institutions with want and envy. I repeat myself from almost ten years ago to say that higher education was the jewel in the crown of American society and culture.

Its ability to remain in that enviable position and function at that level of excellence is threatened today. For profit ventures want our "market share." Legislatures look to state schools with scorn burnished to assuage criticism for the constant cuts they make against the very seed of their society. The middle class, whose rise in the second half of the twentieth-century is inexorably mixed in with this auspicious history, can no longer afford to send their children to private schools. And the schools themselves, stunning models of how to realize the idea of equality, in truth can no longer afford them. Liberal arts colleges reflect the social structure in the United States today: very wealthy and very poor with a yawning gap growing in the middle.

Like anything of significance in history, one, two or even three causes alone never suffice to tell the story. (Think of the flock of causes that historians attribute to the fall of the Roman Empire.) Recognizing that this blog is not intended to tell the whole story of anything, but can function to provoke thought about some things, I am going to post the five most critical factors that threatened higher education today. You fill in the blanks. And BTW, I don't give a hoot about for-profit higher education. As a self-styled fundamentalist of traditional, not-for-profit higher education, I speak for its history and traditions, no matter how big or small, state or private. And yes, technology plays a role in this mix. Read on.

1. A waning of a shared cultural understanding that traditional not-for-profit higher education is a public good. Almost everything below reflects the fall out of this central conundrum.

2. A national tax policy that fails to support the middle class. Res ipsa loquiter.

3. For profit ventures that seek our "market share." (Heaven help me for even embracing an economics vocabulary, view it as a symptom.)

4. Higher education's dependence on government money and therefore its regulation. The sad irony is that much of that regulation is intended to help our institutions, but driven by inside-the-beltway politics, it results in hurt instead.

5. Higher education's behavior, in the main, of the frog in pot that is slowly coming to a boil. A breakdown of this factor awaits the next blog, wherein I will list the five most pressing internal challenges ... reader, stay with and debate me!


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