The Unproductive Search for Bad Campus Actors

Ignoring complexity and nuance while looking for higher ed villains.

March 31, 2014

Let’s start by trying to come to some agreement about the major challenges facing higher ed.

Our higher ed challenges all fall under categories of cost, access, and quality - and our challenges are large.

I’ll list a few, and you can add to the list.  (And this list will not be exhaustive, as any complete list of higher ed problems would keep us here all day).

  • Higher ed costs are rising faster than revenues.
  • Tuition costs increasing at a faster rate than wage growth.
  • Too high levels of student debt.
  • Graduation rates too low (retention).
  • A mismatch between the supply of PhD’s looking for tenure track academic slots and the number of slots available.
  • The disparity of pay, benefits, status and security between full-time / tenure track faculty and contingent and part-time faculty.
  • Uneven quality of instruction.
  • A systematic public disinvestment in higher ed (at the state level).

Again, please add some more to the list. 

The question, I think, is where do we locate responsibility for all these problems?

What are the roots of the problems that we identify in our higher ed industry and at our individual institutions? 

My sense is that all of us, including me, are too quick to blame our problems on individuals (or classes of individuals).  

That instead of seeing our problems and challenges as the result of bad actors, that we should see our higher ed problems as the natural and expected result of operating in a rapidly changing and challenging environment.  One where economic, demographic, technological, competitive, regulatory, and political forces are all pushing against our historical practices and accepted methods of operations.

How often do we hear some variant of the sentiment:

"If only [higher ed leadership, administrators, etc] would put the needs of the institution about their own (selfish) goals, then things on campus would be immeasurably improved?"

When things go wrong we look for something (usual someone) to blame.   

This is a natural response - but increasingly I wonder if this is a productive response.

A more accurate story, I think, is that almost everyone who works in higher ed approaches their jobs with good intentions.  

That most anyone who has chosen to make a career and a life in higher ed is very aware of the challenges faced by our institutions and our industry, and is working hard to contribute to solutions.

What would happen if we came to our discussions and debates about higher ed with the assumption that all the parties in the discussion come with good intent?  

That all of us are trying to do the best we can, often in difficult circumstances, and in the end we all want to strengthen the position of higher education.

What if we were willing to vigorously debate problems and potential solutions in higher ed, but at the same time commit to really listening to and learning from each other in the process?

Can we have the confidence to identify our challenges and our shortcomings, secure in the knowledge that our system of higher ed is the envy of the rest of the world?

Is it possible to get past our zero sum discussions of higher ed?

Can we stop looking for villains, and instead be willing to see complexity?


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