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How Higher Ed is Like "Downton Abbey"
March 13, 2012 - 8:30pm

Are you a "Downton Abbey" fanatic? I finally succumbed after seeing The Onion headline that "Watching Episode of 'Downton Abbey' Counts As Reading Book." That, and the fact that all my colleagues seem to be able to talk about is Downton Abbey.

If you have not gone over the Masterpiece Theater dark side yet (and oh you will), don't worry as this post should contain few spoilers. I'm actually a "Downton Abbey" lightweight, having been only able to watch season 1 - the only season available streaming on Netflix. has a tantalizing "Watch Online" tab - but no season 2.  

How is higher ed like Downton Abbey:

Place Based: Downton Abbey is a place. A building (or buildings) and lands. It is the preservation of this place that drives all the actions Robert, Earl of Grantham. He married Cora initially for her money (and later fell in love) so he could keep Downton Abbey in the family. The question of whether or not Lady Mary will marry cousin Matthew has everything to do with the preservation of Downton Abbey as place. In higher ed we may be experiencing massive changes related to online education, but at its core college and university life continues to revolve around places. We think of our campuses as assets worth saving, preserving, and improving. We have an emotional attachment to the places in which we meet to teach, learn, research, recreate, socialize and collaborate. Blink twice and Downton Abbey could be Downton College.

Bundled Institution: Watching "Downton Abbey" you are struck by how little the Crawley family ever seems to leave the estate. It seems that everything that the family needs can be had within Downton's grounds. They go "off-campus" for some events, to the town for a fair or to London for "the season" - but almost all other recreational, culinary, social, and professional needs can be accomplished from Downton.  I try and never leave campus if I can help it as well.

Labor Intensive and Specialized:  Downton Abbey takes a small  army to keep the place running. The biggest expense of any college or university is people.   My guess is that the labor costs in 1913 were relatively manageable (i.e. the wages were low), but given the sheer number of household employees the total bill must have been proportionately large. And like the modern university, labor at Downton Abbey was highly specialized.  We have database administrators and admissions specialists and economics professors, they had butlers and valets, lady's maids and second footmen.   

Love of Tradition: Are we today any less traditional than the people who live in Downton Abbey? Are we any less suspicious or weary of new ways of doing things? Are we any less set in our ways, rooted in tradition and custom?  Would we do any better of imagining a different future than the Dowager Countess of Grantham? Can we honestly say that we understand our actions, biases, and prejudices any better than the residents of Downton?

Class Divisions:  We can clearly and easily see the class divisions of Downton Abbey. Upstairs and downstairs, lord and butler, lady and maid. Can we as readily recognize the class differences that exist on our own campuses? Are the differences across our academic social classes and less wide than at Downton Abbey?

How would you dispute, improve, or add to this list?

And when will I be able to watch season 2 online?


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