Business issues

A recommendation to Jeff Bezos to award transformative philanthropic gifts to colleges (essay)

On June 15, The New York Times published an interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, in which he was asked about his philanthropic interests, now that his net worth exceeds an estimated $80 billion. His philanthropic giving to date has been modest by the standards of many other multibillionaires.

Bezos responded, “If you have any ideas, just reply to this tweet …”

Within a day, Bezos had received more than 18,000 replies. No doubt the flood of tweets will continue unabated for days to come. Yet it’s very difficult to compress a good idea into the 140-character limit of a tweet.

With that in mind, I offer my own suggestion.

Dear Mr. Bezos,

You indicated to The New York Times that, when it comes to philanthropy, you are interested in making investments that are “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” I have a suggestion that I think would do just that. But first, let me set the table for you.

In 1992, Henry M. Rowan Jr., an industrialist living in southern New Jersey, did something literally unprecedented: he gave $100 million, virtually all of which was unrestricted, to a local public institution, Glassboro State College. He had no particular history with that institution, but it was the only four-year college near his business offices. It was, at the time, the largest gift ever given to a public institution -- and Glassboro State College then had an endowment of less than $1 million. In recognition of this gift (and not, as some people have speculated, because it was a condition of the gift), Glassboro State College changed its name to Rowan University.

Rowan was rolling the dice with an enormous bet. He was betting that a gift of this size could be transformational for Glassboro State. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that institution was soliciting a major gift from him. But he decided that MIT was already so rich that even $100 million would do little to effect a transformation there, and he wanted his gift to have an impact.

Rowan’s gift was paid in installments over 10 years, and I had the good fortune to be hired as president of Rowan University in 1998 to move the university “to the next level” -- a concept that was not specifically defined but was assumed to mean making the university better, stronger and more recognized.

The gift was intended to be an endowment, with some of the investment earnings available for spending every year. But the sheer size of the gift allowed us to leverage it in the market for purposes of borrowing funds to improve the campus. We built engineering, science and education buildings. We renovated many of the existing buildings and improved landscaping. We constructed a town house complex to increase student housing. We acquired 600 acres of land near the campus for future expansion and the construction of a technology park.

Over a 10-year period, working with the town of Glassboro, we constructed campus-related buildings (residence halls, a hotel, a bookstore and a parking garage) on city-owned land adjacent to the campus, and to benefit the town, we orchestrated a public-private partnership to ensure the new buildings would be taxable at normal rates. Most of them included shops and restaurants on the ground floors, as a way of attracting the local populace to the area.

The campus grew in size and reputation, and shortly before I left in 2011, we built the first new medical school in New Jersey in 40 years. The work continues under my successor, with an intention of growing the student body from 8,000 in 1998 to 25,000 by 2025. (It’s more than 17,000 today.)

Rowan died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see his legacy in full bloom. His gift was every bit as transformational as he had hoped. He was a tough businessman, but when he spoke of the university that bore his name, his eyes filled with tears, and on more than one occasion he told me, “That was the best money I ever spent.”

Some cynics speculated at the outset that the university would never receive another gift, since any gift would pale in comparison to Rowan’s gift. To the contrary, philanthropists reasoned that a university that could attract a gift of $100 million must certainly be worth their much smaller investments, and over the subsequent decade, we received more than a dozen gifts of $1 million or more, with one gift of $10 million. Success breeds success -- and large philanthropic investments attract other philanthropic investments.

The Rowan story is gradually becoming better known. For instance, it was featured in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast last year as an example of how philanthropists should be investing in colleges where their gifts will have meaning and impact, as opposed merely to swelling the bank vaults of well-known institutions that are already fabulously wealthy.

So, Mr. Bezos, here is my suggestion for a philanthropic investment.

  • Transform 10 colleges or universities each year for 10 years by awarding them an unrestricted endowment gift of $100 million. That’s $1 billion annually for 10 years.
  • Any public or private four-year, nonprofit institution with an endowment of less than $100 million would be eligible to apply.
  • An anonymous panel of experts whom you select would review the applications each year and select the 10 that promise to be the most transformational, affect the largest number of students and have the greatest societal impact. The specific criteria for evaluation would be yours to state, and those criteria may well change over the 10-year history of the plan.
  • As a condition of the gift, each recipient institution would be obliged to prepare an annual report, for 10 years, documenting their success (or failure) in achieving the goals they stated in their initial proposal. Those reports would be public, so that everyone could see the ways in which the colleges and universities were being transformed by virtue of winning a Bezos grant.

Mr. Bezos, this proposal, if funded, will positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of students every year -- forever. But more important, if something like this does not happen, our country will continue to see a major shortfall of college graduates relative to our economic needs, and that shortfall will occur largely among would-be first-generation students, many of whom are members of ethnic and racial minorities.

There are many worthy philanthropic investments that you might make. But the economic future of our country depends on doubling the percentage of American adults with a four-year degree. A study last year by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce showed than 73 percent of all jobs created since the Great Recession required at least a baccalaureate, and only 36 percent of adult Americans currently have that level of education. The current system of higher education will never get us to where we need to be, but philanthropists such as you can show us the way.


Donald J. Farish, president
Roger Williams University

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Heavy-handed regulations have been unfairly and indiscriminately imposed on for-profit institutions (essay)

During the Obama years, a pervasive negative attitude toward for-profit colleges prevailed. Headline after headline portrayed the acrimonious disposition of the administration toward the sector, pointing to for-profit universities as hotbeds of fraud, false promises (particularly about job placements) and low, if not nonexistent, academic standards. It was especially pilloried for its reputed exploitation of veterans and minorities.

A 2015 New Yorker article, “The Rise and Fall of For-Profit Schools,” by James Surowiecki, is an excellent example of media commentary outlining the precarious position of the entire sector of for-profit institutions. And while a number of for-profit universities have been cited for transgressions, the collapse of Corinthian Colleges (the second-largest for-profit chain in 2010), due primarily to pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, stands as the bellwether of the sector’s clouded future -- only to be followed by the U.S. Department of Education’s barring of ITT Tech from enrolling new students who receive federal aid and its increased financial oversight of that institution.

The Trump administration is generally thought to be more favorable toward for-profit institutions due in part to a general understanding of the need and use of private capital in education and to President Trump’s pronounced antipathy toward regulations in general, the removal of which would benefit for-profit colleges. It is early in the administration, however, and the full extent of change is to date unrealized despite yesterday’s announcement about the administration’s intended plans to suspend or renegotiate two primary regulations, borrower defense and gainful employment. These steps could be interpreted as the beginnings of relaxed federal scrutiny of for-profit universities, arguably removing a layer of protection from students and their families who are lured into significant debt and unrealizable job placement promises by unscrupulous marketing practice and misrepresentation.

Is censure of for-profit higher education warranted? Yes, in part. Some questionable educational institutions have been practicing under the legal structure of a for-profit. The condemnation, however, should not be applied in a blanket manner. Federal regulations should not be used to target without discrimination an entire sector made up of a wide variety of institutions with differing purposes and performance. Such regulations should not, in the name of protecting students, actually become a blunt instrument to eliminate an entire sector of higher education because of disagreement about the definition and resulting implications of purpose arising from the tax status of a college or university.

There are good players among for-profit institutions -- those with integrity that want to use private capital to advance student success while also potentially making a profit. That important fact is lost in the dedicated pursuit to universally condemn an entire sector through regulation and contrast it with nonprofit higher education, generally viewed as a pillar of virtue.

Certainly, the latter is experiencing growing criticism for not delivering value for investment and creating obstacles to access and affordability. And it is not absent a variety of other compromising touch points, including inadequate sexual assault procedures, transgressions of academic freedom and free speech, financial misuse, and medical malpractice. Yet, unlike for-profit education, it escapes universal castigation as a sector of higher education irretrievably fraudulent and worthy of dissolution.

The Lessons of History

In a free-market-driven society, whether we are talking about businesses or educational institutions, the survival of the fittest -- often defined as quality of product and wealth -- is operative and a powerful corollary to external regulation. In the education sphere, however, integrity and a higher purpose are also integral to survival. Higher education is rightfully expected to improve lives in a variety of profound ways -- intellectually, ethically and financially. Institutions that are most adaptable to the honest ambitions of their audience, employ outstanding and empathic leadership, adhere to shared sector standards, and honor their mission will survive. Those that constantly fall short of expectations, performance and demand will fail.

This winnowing of the field occurred, for example, in the first few decades of nonprofit colleges in our country during a period absent federal regulation. An appreciation of the history of higher education in the United States is instructive. Colleges in the early period of American education were often a sorry lot by today’s social and academic standards. Financial instability was rampant, and the academic bar was low -- even at institutions that have over the centuries been elevated to top-tier status.

For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater and where I was president for 14 years, is considered -- and rightfully so -- a prestigious liberal arts college. Founded as a grammar school in 1773, it introduced in 1798 a 10-month degree program at the insistence of impatient students who did not want to waste time studying too long (yes, even in the 18th-century, higher education succumbed to consumerism). The result was disastrous, and the degree was ultimately rescinded. According to Charles Colman Sellers in Dickinson College: A History (1973), graduates “lost standing among other college graduates and employers.” In modern terminology, market forces led to the quick demise of the program. A longer course of study was quickly reinstated.

Such early growing pains are not isolated events, and many of today’s nonprofit colleges and universities will find such questionable moments in their early histories. In fact, institutional instability and the resultant anxiety among students as to whether their college would exist from year to year were rampant. According to John R. Thelin, Jason R. Edwards and Eric Moyen in Higher Education in the United States, “Between 1800 and 1850, the United States experienced a ‘college building boom’ in which more than 200 degree-granting institutions were created. However, since most of these new colleges depended on student tuition payments and local donors, there was also a high closure rate and the schools that did survive typically struggled from year to year.” Dickinson, for example, closed twice in its early history, only to reopen and ultimately flourish.

The separating of the wheat from the chaff that occurred as a natural development process for nonprofit higher education is now happening to for-profit universities emerging from their respective early boom period in the 1990s and early 2000s. The only difference, and it is a crucial one, is that the whole sector of nonprofit institutions was not subjected to annihilation -- much of it from blanket, indiscriminate governmental regulations -- as is arguably the case with today’s for-profit universities. If nonprofit universities were subjected to the same undifferentiated pressures and universal condemnation in their early years as for-profit universities have been in recent decades, the sector -- now considered arguably the best in the world -- would not have survived.

Yet there appears to be no recognition of this developmental process in the condemnation of for-profit colleges and, thus, no attempt to permit good players to go to their next stage of development and service. For-profit institutions that are “good soldiers” haven’t been allowed to learn from their early successes and failures like those nonprofits that survived centuries ago. Instead, heavy-handed and indiscriminate regulations have been imposed upon them as a sector, thus arguably diverting much of their energies from educating students to managing existential threats.

Two Heavy-Handed Measures

Two categories of federal regulations introduced during the Obama presidency that the Trump administration plans to reset deserve closer examination.

Gainful-employment regulations. While very much targeted at the for-profit higher education sector, these Obama-era regulations actually apply to some nonprofit programs -- specifically, non-degree-level programs (e.g., certificate and continuing education programs at community colleges), as well as some of the continuing education programs at public institutions. To be in compliance with the regulations, institutions need to demonstrate that their graduates from each academic program have debt that doesn’t exceed 20 percent of their discretionary income or 8 percent of their total earnings. The Higher Education Act statutory language uses the phrase “an eligible program of training to prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation” for first-degree students in two places. The first is in the definition of proprietary institution (i.e., for-profits), and the second is for vocational programs at nonprofit institutions.

The Higher Education Act was written decades ago (in the mid-1960s) and, while updated through reauthorization every six to 10 years, it still includes outdated language and policies. Among those is the language on gainful employment, which focuses exclusively upon institutions providing training for vocational, entry-level jobs.

Now, decades later, the Education Department has decided to define the term “gainful employment” through regulation, using a debt-to-earnings metric. Those regulations apply to all for-profit institutions and programs, even though many in the sector have expanded academic programs well beyond vocational and entry-level training.

For example, earning a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing or education might be important to a person’s career advancement and benefit those served, but that advancement isn’t necessarily demonstrated through an income increase as an immediate result of the degree. In contrast, the relationship of debt assumed in order to acquire a certificate or associate degree for an entry-level job in welding, cosmetology or auto mechanics and the amount earned at that entry level could still be significant, as assumed decades ago in the Higher Education Act.

When the legislation was first written, no one contemplated that today there would be degree-granting for-profit institutions offering bachelor’s and graduate degrees with outcomes on par or better than numerous of their nonprofit peers, as well as the same multiple accreditations by regional and professional agencies as those same peers. Nevertheless, the outdated regulations apply indiscriminately even to institutions displaying excellence indicators on issues such as student debt that are as good as or better than many nonprofit institutions

Borrower defense-to-repayment regulations. These Obama administration measures establish new ways by which borrowers can seek repayment when harmed by an institution. They also include new regulations on financial responsibility, such as a more stringent and arbitrary imposition of letters of credits on institutions (both for-profit and nonprofit), and yet another new loan-repayment rate requirement applicable only to for-profit institutions. The imposition of new forms of loan recoupment and of new financial responsibility standards and letters of credit puts both smaller nonprofit institutions and larger for-profit institutions at unnecessary risk. There are several enforcement tools -- including existing letter of credit requirements and timed disbursements of aid -- that already exist to protect students’ access to Title IV funds, which if used correctly do not jeopardize their institutions’ very existence, as these regulations would.

It is also unclear about the intrinsic value to students of a new loan repayment rate (and warning requirement) that is applicable to only one set of institutions based on tax status. What is perhaps of even more interest is that this is the third rate the Education Department has created in recent years, each with a different methodology. Important in this context is to note the widely published observation that the department erred significantly on the College Scorecard loan repayment rate -- by 20 percentage points on average.

The defense-to-repayment and financial responsibility regulations would apply across higher education, but the expectation is that they would hit the for-profit sector harder as financial wrongdoing is erroneously thought to be purview solely of this sector of higher education.

These two new or redefined regulations have seemed sure to create -- until the intervention now of the Trump administration -- unworkably vague and subjective standards of compliance that unfairly target predominately for-profit institutions. They serve arguably as instruments to force the dissolution of the entire sector, as they are applied without differentiation as to mission or performance among all institutions within the tax status of for-profit.

For-profit and nonprofit colleges and universities that practice fraudulent behavior, that misrepresent themselves to their students and do not deliver a substantive education matching their stated mission, should be shut down using a combination of external regulations, internal sector accreditation and market forces.

But indiscriminate condemnation and external federal regulation seemingly to eliminate an entire sector of education on the basis of often unarticulated motivation are severely misguided. And most important, they drastically limit educational choice among those students with ambition and a wide variety of needs.

For-profit higher education as a sector should be permitted the same winnowing process of separating the wheat from the chaff as occurred with the nonprofits. Anything less represents a seeming radical transgression of our free-market system that has historically permitted good practices, useful “products” and innovation to emerge from particular institutions in a sector over time, regardless of the tax classification to which they collectively belong.

William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and chief global engagement officer of the International University Alliance. He serves as a board member of the for-profit Walden University and chairs the board of the nonprofit Columbia College Hollywood.

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The key trends for all institutions embedded in the Purdue-Kaplan acquisition (essay)

In April Purdue University announced its acquisition of the for-profit Kaplan University -- a bold move, made bolder still by the partnership’s “Morrill Project” moniker. However, the frenzy over what’s most remarkable about the deal -- how much of Purdue will now be “online,” the fate of one of proprietary education’s biggest players, the odd coupling -- has distracted many people in higher education from the more important lessons embedded in the Purdue/Kaplan story. Even those colleges and universities without massive online ambitions should pay heed to five larger higher education trends represented by the Purdue/Kaplan acquisition, trends that are relevant to all institutions.

Trend No. 1: Traditional colleges and universities are renewing their interest in the bachelor’s degree completion market, but the market is not as large as many estimates indicate. The majority of Kaplan’s (now Purdue’s) students are bachelor’s degree completion students, a technical term that refers to adult students who have attained some college but not earned a bachelor’s degree. Unlike direct community college transfers, these students may have been away from higher education for years, earning a potpourri of credits on and off over many years and from a number of disparate institutions. Earlier this year, 80 percent of the continuing, professional and online education members of EAB, where I serve as an executive director, noted a high desire to learn new strategies for success in the degree completion market.

EAB, which works with more than 1,200 college and university members, has some words of caution for any institutions that believe the size of the market is such that degree completion will be the panacea to their revenue woes. Yes, there are 31 million people in America who have some college and no degree -- a number often cited to reflect the impressive size of the market. But the National Student Clearinghouse report (where the number comes from) actually sizes the population of “potential completers” -- or those who have at least two years’ worth of progress toward a degree -- as four million people, a far cry from 31 million.

To be sure, bachelor’s degree completion programs will be vital for achieving state and national access goals, and many institutions will see the financial benefit of increased enrollments. But colleges and universities will need to examine their regional markets and competitive environments, as well as whether they have or can build the recruiting and student success infrastructures needed -- and all those elements will differ from those for traditional students.

Trend No. 2: Different capabilities are increasingly needed to recruit and serve all alternative student segments. Those segments include degree completion students, international, fully online and working adults pursuing professional master’s and postbaccalaureate certificates.

For instance, a desire to meet the needs of adult degree completion students, and a realization that they could not easily build the infrastructure themselves, drove Purdue’s decision to acquire Kaplan. While not every college or university wants to expand in the bachelor’s degree completion market, almost all of them are turning to some alternative segment -- in other words, not first-time, full-time freshmen -- to boost enrollments.

Most prominent is the intensified focus EAB sees across our membership to double down on master’s and postbaccalaureate programs (i.e., certificates) to target working professionals looking to advance or change their careers. Yet many institutions have learned the hard way -- as their programs have missed enrollments or profitability targets -- that their undergraduate enrollment processes simply don’t work for a completely different audience. Since such markets require capabilities that are expensive and time-consuming to build, institutions often turn to external partners.

Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan may have been headline grabbing, but the financial elements of the deal are similar to what many universities have found in working with online program management (OPM) vendors, such as 2U, that receive a revenue share for helping colleges and universities migrate traditional programs (typically master’s degrees) online. Under the conditions of Purdue’s deal, the Graham Holdings Company, parent of Kaplan Inc. and Kaplan University, will yield 12.5 percent of the new venture’s revenue, but only after the university has covered its operating costs and received $10 million in each of the first five years. It is a more favorable deal for Purdue certainly than many OPMs have historically offered their traditional higher education partners (up to 60 to 70 percent). But most OPM deals don’t include 32,000-plus students from the start, so the reduced percentage share doesn’t seem surprising.

The OPM market is predicted to become a $1.4 billion industry by 2020, and new players are emerging every day. Historically, OPMs have provided full turnkey service to traditional colleges and universities, including everything from up-front capital to marketing/recruiting to instructional design to student services. That is starting to change, as institutions demand unbundled services. For example, our recent national survey of deans of continuing, professional and online education found that institutions are much more interested in outsourcing marketing and market research than instructional design or academic advising.

What will be interesting to watch at Purdue is how the Kaplan capabilities end up being used not only for the traditional adult degree completion programs but also to support other programs at Purdue (such as their existing online master’s programs) that are outside the scope of the Kaplan deal but could probably benefit from certain unbundled elements of Kaplan’s infrastructure.

Trend No. 3: Colleges and universities are turning to creative models outside traditional governance structures in order to meet market needs more nimbly. Currently, higher ed institutions are often hampered in reaching new markets due to not only organizational and operational challenges but also the slow process of shared governance. Besides acquiring a new online and adult-serving infrastructure in Kaplan, Purdue also has created a separate governance structure in the “New U” represented by the partnership, with the New U’s chancellor reporting directly to Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels. The time span between the initial conceptualization of this idea and trustee approval was five and a half months.

By contrast, under traditional university governance, single-degree programs can take years to gain approval. Given that many new professional master’s and certificate programs are designed to meet fast-changing work force needs, that long time frame can lead to severe competitive disadvantages.

Many colleges and universities have found ways of creating nimbler governance structures without an acquisition. That can include creating a separate for-profit subsidiary or 501(c)(3) to meet corporate education needs, as Cornell University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County did, respectively. Or they can spin off a separately accredited institution to meet military and adult learners, as Chapman University did with the creation of Brandman University.

Most commonly, institutions develop more agile approval, planning and pricing processes for market-oriented programs, often housed within a dedicated continuing, professional, online or extended education unit. These new types of organizational models and processes can be crucial for stimulating and supporting innovation.

Trend No. 4: Colleges and universities need to be ready as new competitors enter their markets -- whether through mergers and acquisitions, online ventures, or other methods of expansion. The number of college and university mergers and acquisitions in the United States that occurred from 2010 to 2015 was more than double those that took place during the prior five years -- jumping from around 15 to 20 deals to between 40 and 50, according to our preliminary research. Many of those deals represented rescues of institutions that could no longer survive on their own.

The number may seem relatively small, but institutions should pay heed even if they’re not buying, selling or being merged. For research universities, a competitor’s strategic acquisition of a graduate or professional school can boost its prestige and ranking. When Rutgers University acquired the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 2012, for example, it increased its total research spending to surpass Harvard, Northwestern and Yale Universities. And in states with performance-based funding, the best-positioned institutions might acquire the students they need to satisfy requirements for the largest possible appropriations.

Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan includes 15 campuses and learning centers. How Purdue chooses to use them may have competitive implications for nearby colleges and universities, even those that may never have considered Purdue a direct competitor.

The larger takeaway for all institutions is that what defines each college or university’s “competitive set” has been expanding over time, as more institutions grow their offerings and brand presence in secondary or tertiary locations. Other colleges and universities need to respond by firming up their ties to local employers and organizations in their region, carefully considering whether secondary locations make sense for them, and adapting marketing and recruiting techniques to reach a savvier student customer with more options.

Trend No. 5: Many of the lessons learned from failed mergers and acquisitions are relevant as colleges and universities expand intra- and inter-institutional partnerships more broadly. The conventional wisdom is that at least 50 percent of M&A partnerships across industries fail. Deals that appear to be no-brainers on paper flounder due to poor integration processes.

One example in higher education is DePaul University’s acquisition of Barat College for $6 million in 2001, with additional investments of about $18 million in upgrades. Enrollments never met their intended targets, ultimately leading to Barat’s closure. Marie Cini at University of Maryland University College has written a smart analysis of the different questions Purdue will need to consider in the integration process.

Most higher education institutions will never live through an M&A deal, but all are looking for more partnerships: state system collaboration and consolidation; self-organized consortia; multi-institutional combined bachelor’s and master’s programs (for example, 3+2s or 4+1s) and the like; and better articulation more broadly. Perhaps such agreements won’t require the kind of dramatic change in management as an acquisition. But, in all cases, the vision and strategy on paper often don’t take into account the complexities that come when trying to integrate different day-to-day systems, competing policies and conflicting cultures. Even with interdisciplinary degree programs within a university, students complain about the multiple processes, systems and policies crossing departments, schools or colleges on a single campus.

In short, partnerships -- within campuses, across campuses -- will be increasingly common. For all the time spent designing a strategy and forging the initial relationship, even more time (and probably dollars) will need to be invested in getting the integration right.

It goes without saying that few colleges and universities will pursue partnerships as large scale as Purdue and Kaplan’s. But as traditional demographics shift, financial pressures mount and funding needs for strategic ambitions continue to rise, few institutions will be able to afford not to pursue a new-to-them market in some way. In this increasingly competitive environment, they must take seriously Purdue’s lesson to determine the new -- and often less familiar -- capabilities, organizational structures and strategic partners required to succeed.

Melanie Ho is executive director of research and strategy at EAB, a research and technology company that serves more than 1,200 educational institutions.

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How cabinets can avoid common shortcomings (essay)

Peter Eckel describes the often typical shortcomings of cabinets -- and how to avoid them.

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Signs that an institution is on the path toward unrecoverable failure (essay)

In February, Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., announced that it would suspend operations in May. Although it had an annual operating deficit between $4 million and $5 million, and was heavily in debt and on probation from its accreditor, many of its faculty members expressed surprise at the announcement that it was closing its doors. They had not given sufficient attention to evidence that their employer was in imminent danger of shutting down.

Many small to midsize colleges or universities in America show the same signs of being on a path toward unrecoverable failure. Here are a few of those signs.

An inability or unwillingness to develop academic programs that provide a competitive advantage. Because of biases toward optimism and inertia, people tend to make the same decisions that they’ve made before, but with the expectation of a different outcome. In higher education, that takes the form of refusing to acknowledge sunk costs and relying on traditional revenue streams regardless of market demand. Academic programs that could strategically position an institution in niche markets are perpetually starved of resources, while faculty lines in areas of the curriculum that attract only a handful of students are always filled.

Ask yourself how distinctive your institution’s academic programs really are. Do prospective students perceive sufficient value added when universities like Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire and Troy are offering complete degree programs online for $350 to $650 per credit hour? What’s the plan for when a majority of your university’s undergraduate applicants have already completed a full set of general education requirements elsewhere?

Even when a college or university significantly alters its educational product line, the economics of the market can render those changes irrelevant. Marian Court College, in Swampscott, Mass., added a select number of bachelor’s degrees to its traditional menu of associate’s degree programs in 2011. As a commuter college without the overhead costs of residence halls and co-curricular activities, it was able to price its annual full-time day student tuition at only $16,500. But four community colleges were located within 15 miles, with in-state resident tuition of approximately $6,000 per year. Salem State University, less than four miles away, offered a wide range of two- and four-year degrees, plus dormitories, intercollegiate athletics and the other aspects of college that come with an undergraduate enrollment of around 7,500 students. Salem State’s tuition was about $10,000 per year. Marian Court College couldn’t compete on price, and nothing else distinguished it from its nearby competitors. It closed in 2015.

A penchant for mistaking information for communication. If students are going to enroll at a college or university, they have to know it exists. Once they know it exists, they look for a clear, consistent, easily accessible message about the outcomes they can achieve if they attend.

Does your institution effectively advertise the accomplishments of recent alumni, the career-applicable experiences of current students and the ways in which faculty members make these outcomes possible? Or are its webpages and social media streams filled with a confusing jumble of updates on cafeteria operating hours, vapid mission statements and tedious academic jargon? Dysfunctional external communications are a self-inflicted wound: the more money that gets spent to annoy more people more quickly, the greater the damage done.

The academics webpage of Saint Joseph’s College lists four reasons “why our education is different.” Though clearly written, the text could just as aptly describe dozens, if not hundreds, of other small colleges and universities across the country. Maybe current or past students did great things at Saint Joseph’s, but its website didn’t communicate that to the market.

A focus on short-term comparisons instead of long-term trends. Faculty members and administrators often gauge current performance against figures from the previous one to three years. That practice leads to shifting baseline syndrome, in which benchmarks wander instead of being fixed against standards from the more distant past. No need to worry if the current year is just a little bit worse than the year before, because next year will be measured against what’s happening now. And a spate of faculty hires or a raise might make it seem like your institution has finally turned the corner, when in reality it’s a brief hiccup in the downward slide.

We knew in 1999 how many 18-year-olds there would be today, just as we know today roughly how many 18-year-olds there will be in 2035. Did your institution adequately plan 15, 10 or even five years ago for the number and type of high school graduates that currently exist? Are decisions about academic operations driven by the market demographics that will be in place 10 or 20 years from now?

To avoid being the complacent frog in the pot of warming water, look at how your employer’s tuition discount rate and its percentage of Pell Grant recipients have changed over time. The higher an independent college or university’s average tuition discount and the greater the proportion of Pell Grant recipients in undergraduate enrollment, the weaker the relationship between its advertised cost of attendance, the size of its enrollment and its financial well-being. Any independent institution with an endowment of less than $100 million and fewer than 2,000 full-time undergraduates that continues to increase its average tuition discount over the long run is heading for financial difficulties, if not ruin.

Plans for transformation in which illiquid and encumbered assets play an essential role. Most small colleges and universities are heavily tuition dependent, with tiny endowments and narrow operating margins. Yet those same colleges too frequently adopt a “build it and they will come” strategy that ends up being a financial time bomb with a short fuse.

In 2010, Burlington College’s president spearheaded a $10 million debt-financed purchase of lakefront property, as part of a plan to build out a new campus large enough for hundreds of additional students. The problem? The plan to pay off the debt by doubling Burlington’s enrollment in only a few years never materialized. Burlington College couldn’t meet its loan payments, and it closed last year.

Also in 2010, Saint Joseph’s received a donation of 7,600 acres of farmland and later tried to sell off its rights to income from the parcel in exchange for $40 million. But it was only offered $15 million -- not enough to keep the college operating.

What low-overhead but badly managed academic programs can your institution improve with minimal investment? Are the right people in positions of responsibility, are they provided with the information they need to do their jobs well and are they held accountable for their performance? These organizational problems may seem like inconsequential nuisances, but cumulatively they are disabling. Fixing them will return dividends more reliably than speculating on huge capital investments.

Frequently a college or university will exhibit a combination of these signs for several years in a row. Missed enrollment targets, budget cuts and needless inefficiencies become background noise, ignored by administrators and faculty members. Until one day, when they no longer have jobs.

Higher education is changing, and for much of the professoriate, retirement after a comfortable academic career gets less likely every year. Learn about the true condition of your employer, challenge assumptions and plan for the worst. Forewarned is forearmed.

Chad Raymond is chair of the department of cultural, environmental and global studies at Salve Regina University and the managing editor of the blog Active Learning in Political Science.

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Presidential contracts are becoming more complex and corporate (essay)

Employment agreements for presidents are becoming increasingly complex and bear little resemblance to the typical appointment letters for faculty leaders or other senior administrators, write James Finkelstein and Judith Wilde.

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University System of Georgia announces new administrative review

As consolidation efforts continue, the public university system sets its sights on assessing campus and systemwide administrative costs and performance.

How universities have gotten caught in a privatization trap (essay)

This country’s public universities face the Trump administration in a weakened condition. That is partly because they have suffered years of state funding cuts and still aren’t back to pre-2008 levels. But it’s also because they have long embraced a private-funding model that doesn’t work and whose weaknesses Trump and his people can exploit.

A painful example is the proposed 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, which Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has contended would not hurt research, as it would mostly focus on cutting back on overhead expenses to universities. An 18 percent budget slash sounds catastrophic -- until you remember that companies take these kinds of hits and survive. So do American families, where illness or job loss lead to cuts far greater than that.

The same goes for public universities: few have not had a cut on that scale sometime in the past 25 years, and still fewer have admitted that such losses hurt educational quality. Since universities survived the financial crisis with little damage -- that they have disclosed -- what would keep the citizenry awake at night about an 18 percent cut for medical research?

Research directors reply that it would be terrible indeed: National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, for example, has said the proposed cuts endanger the economy, since “half of our present GDP is due to investments in science and technology.” Researchers have noted that the current funding austerity already appears in the form of the declining average success rate for grant applications, which has been cut nearly in half since 2001, from 27 percent to 16 percent. Four in five applications go unfunded, with presumably valuable results to medical knowledge possibly lost.

Such arguments might work if voters thought science needed public funding to get to the public. But the unfortunate fact is that they have been taught otherwise for many years. Universities have taught politicians and the voters at large that they can and will deal with 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent public-funding cuts by finding alternative revenue streams, nearly all of which are private. Universities have asked people to marvel at their entrepreneurial prowess: they have raised tuition beyond inflation for decades, sought private donations, formed research partnerships, subsidized tech start-ups, outsourced room and board, built new buildings with promises of future lease revenue from private firms, and so on. Yes, cuts are a shame, universities seem to say, but we have liberated our inner Zuckerberg, and the public cuts haven’t hurt our excellence at all!

To take one example, Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California, said during the financial crisis that while they struggled to pay salaries in English and sociology, the “medical business” was doing just fine. Such statements told the world that the public-good educational core lost money while edu-business meant profits. This undermined the voters’ understanding of the special role that public funding plays in public-good activities like teaching and research, in which few of the benefits can be captured as profits by the institution. Adding to the confusion, university officials insisted that their public mission remained as healthy as ever.

Universities thus arrive at the Mar-a-Lago policy house with a confusing mixed message: we do the public good with private money. This confusion is now haunting NIH research. Since medicine is the icon of knowledge transformed into business, why shouldn’t we cut NIH tax support and make big pharma -- that is, its long-suffering customers -- pay for research? If your arthritis meds cost you $3,000 per month, why should you pay taxes on top for research?

In short, the public university’s first private-sector lesson is that private funding serves the public interest as well as public funding. And the logical response is, great, let the public interest be defined by what the private consumer is willing to pay.

The second post-public principle is that the value of knowledge is its market value and can be measured as a return on investment. Although most academics would deny this in theory, universities adhere to it as a theory in use. Higher education institutions have become reliant on return-on-investment arguments to recruit students, and the science establishment, though aware that fundamental science takes decades to pay off economically, constantly dangles large gross research revenues, patent royalties, start-up ventures and trillion-dollar markets in front of the policy makers who allocate funds. Universities and policy officials have taught the political world that science has value because it will generate a positive market return. ROI calculations are used to cut through complicated expert beliefs in scientific use value, intellectual merit and long-term benefits to society.

This view was taken to its logical conclusion for me one day in 2004, when a young engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, announced to our statewide science policy committee, “If a project can’t get corporate sponsorship, it’s probably not good enough to be funded by a federal agency.” That statement ignored the analytical distinction between a public agency funding research for public benefit and a business funding research for its own ROI. When he collapsed public into private, the engineer claimed that, for policy purposes, all good science will have a positive ROI and quality can be measured by pecuniary returns.

Again, few people would accept such claim as economic theory, and economists like Kenneth Arrow and Richard Nelson discredited it in the 1950s. But politics yokes false yet expedient claims to powerful interests to generate practices that act as though intellectual value can be measured as market value. The prestige of market forces, working with misinformation from universities, has kept generations of political and business leaders from inquiring further. Hence, most nonacademics assume that if a university laboratory is doing good science then it is making money, and plenty of it.

The Achilles’ Heel

Enter HHS Secretary Price, who looked at medical research and asked “whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer.” That is an entirely appropriate question within our private-sector paradigm of public knowledge, since that treats public funding like private funding and judges it by pecuniary returns.

Price went straight for the Achilles’ heel of the whole operation: “I was struck by one thing at NIH,” he said, “and that is that about 30 percent of the grant money that goes out is used for indirect expenses, which as you know means that that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done.”

On the theory that universities are grossing huge research revenues, this 30 percent spending on peripherals was like bonus pay. All the proposed cuts would mean, then, is that NIH will reduce university profits. Federal dollars will go farther, the taxpayer saves, and universities just have less NIH money to spend on their favorite stuff.

Fine, except for one thing: universities lose money on IDC payments, which don't cover costs. And universities, instead of bragging that their research losses are a donation to the welfare of humanity, have covered them up for decades.

Indirect costs are infrastructure, not gravy that gets spread around. They cover the facilities and administration that support the specific research, which could not take place without the general staff, buildings, utilities and everything else that houses the research. All this costs more than any collection of research sponsors want to pay, even over many years. So universities lose money on indirect costs paid by NIH and every other sponsor under the sun.

Universities on average pay over 20 cents of their own institutional funds to support every dollar of research. A Nature study confirmed a large gap between calculated need and actual reimbursements: “The average negotiated rate is 53 percent, and the average reimbursed rate is 34 percent” -- a difference of nearly 20 points. Two hundred million dollars of research expenditures at a good-size research university costs that university $40 million of its own money, which it mostly gets from student tuition and state funds.

Even the most successful, best-compensated universities in the country have some version of this problem. “We lose money on every piece of research that we do,” comments Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has negotiated an IDC rate of 56 percent. Were MIT to keep grossing around $500 million in federal grant income, and all federal agencies came to imitate the Price practice of zero IDC funding, MIT would need to come up with an additional $150 million of its own money (to replace the 30 percent average of cut IDC funds) -- just to keep losing what it already loses on federal research.

Price’s policy would be a financial disaster for research universities: they would need to cut the amount of research that they can support, which would wreak havoc on the production of knowledge and on scientific personnel. It would deepen the existing fear that a generation of scientists is already imperiled by inadequate funding. It would force universities to take even more money from students and from faculty in disciplines without large extramural grants. Parts of an already unstable research ecosystem could collapse.

Cutting Our Losses

Although we can and must condemn Price’s cynical, destructive proposal, we need to face the fact that universities have set themselves up. They have treated research costs as a trade secret: neither faculty members, nor well-intentioned legislators, nor the public know that science loses money for universities, or how much. The Nature study got its data only through Freedom of Information Act requests. I had the same experience while doing my own research, which is that public universities treat actual reimbursement rates and IDC spending in the same way that private businesses do -- as proprietary.

Why do universities not disclose financial information that would improve their case for stable or even increased funding? Custom and fear of backlash play their roles. But the decisive factor is the private-sector framework. University officials now treat research as a business activity that is managed as though it were commercially sensitive and should run in the black. They do not want to disclose their large and routine outlays to cover shortfalls on that research, since in a private-sector model such losses signal failure. In addition, the biggest percentage losses come from private foundations and corporate partners that often bring the most prestige. Universities are caught in a privatization trap that they built themselves, and that will be difficult to take apart.

But take it apart they must, and the good news is that research losses can be cut. A fuller program can be found in my new book, The Great Mistake, but the elements can be summarized.

First, universities must go beyond current reporting categories to analyze and disclose how they use indirect cost funds. That disclosure will fan suspicion and resentment into anger and recrimination. But that is normal when issues that have been removed from the political life of a community are reinstated, and various grievances will need to be worked through. Such a move will tax the political skills of university administrations, but until disclosure and discussion occur, most people -- from Tom Price to academic scientists -- will continue to assume that much IDC feathers nests far from the laboratory and can be cut.

Second, universities must admit that the old deal on research funding was ended by state cuts, and then ask for a new deal. They must ask for full coverage of indirect costs. That means going in the opposite direction of Secretary Price and demanding that sponsors stop expecting universities to subsidize them with less money than they used to have that they must increasingly extract from undergraduates. Universities need to start making the full ask to partners, as Price is now doing to them.

Most important, universities need to embrace the public-good definition of research and higher education that turns private losses into public gains. Universities lose money on research in order to benefit the entire society. Since the whole state gains from a great medical center and museum and sociology department’s expertise on racial stratification, the whole state is legitimately asked to pay for it through taxes.

Universities have tried the soft privatization of revenues. That has failed to stabilize university finances and miseducated people about the nonmarket and social value of the university. Universities have also squandered the philosophical and social foundation of their public benefits and lost much general goodwill. But it is not too late to get it back -- starting with the re-education of Tom Price.

Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Barry and St. Thomas Universities explore strategic alliance amid pressures in South Florida

Two Roman Catholic universities ask if they can do a better job of serving the Miami area together.

The downside of innovation and disruption (essay)

Everywhere one turns, the idea of disruptive innovation continues to spread, even as academics have cast doubt on the theory’s validity. Put on the agenda by scholars such as Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, the idea presumes that old institutions, including colleges and universities, will be hard-pressed to change fast enough to meet new external environments. Instead, new technologies and organizations will outcompete the old, even if -- and, in fact, because -- the new ones offer a subpar but cheaper product.

In time, the new institutions will cultivate demand for their products, improve quality and displace the older institutions -- which did not change fast enough. This happens in Silicon Valley, and it will soon happen to campuses across America, Christensen and Eyring warned in their 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out.

The rhetoric of disruptive innovation combines a theory of organizational change with a theory of time. Existing institutions find innovation difficult because their structures and norms are oriented around doing, and even improving, what they already do -- a phenomenon political scientists call path dependence. Agile new institutions can enter the market because there is demand for more suppliers and they are not beholden to the past.

But such claims have often been married to the presumption that new technologies have sped up the rate of social change, making existing institutions even more vulnerable. And it is this piece -- the narrative of speed -- that has led so many advocates of disruption to believe that we must act now or be left behind.

The narrative of speed is quickly spreading. For instance, the authors of what came to be known as the Spellings Report, issued in 2006 by a commission appointed by then U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, concluded that higher education is a “mature enterprise.” “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril,” did not respond to a changing society, the report warned. New technology and global competition mandate a fundamental transformation of education institutions.

In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors’ decision to remove university president Teresa Sullivan in 2012, the board’s rector at the time, Helen Dragas, asserted that the institution was facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas proclaimed, “is simply moving too fast.”

Old-Fashioned Reforms

Policy makers and university administrators who advocate disruptive innovation are right that all institutions -- and colleges and universities are no exception -- must account for changing external environments. And no institution is ever static. But their proclamations to adapt or die ignore the fact that human environments are the products of human agency. Society is a human construct, not a natural process. Institutions can shape as well as reflect the society and culture around them. True courage is trying, even in the face of hostility and skepticism, to defend what colleges and universities do. But giving in is easier.

In fact, despite all the talk of innovation, what is perhaps most surprising is how familiar and uninteresting recent models of disruptive innovation really are. Yes, they use computers. But the structures of institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and the ever-expanding Arizona State University online programs are really premised on ideas that date back to the industrial revolution. Managers control the organization. Labor is subdivided into discrete tasks (what WGU calls the disaggregated faculty model) and alienated from the products of their work. In turn, those products -- including curriculum and assessment-- are standardized and work routinized. This is quite old-fashioned.

In contrast, forward-looking companies try to emulate traditional colleges and universities by building large, idyllic campuses where people can interact and be creative. “There is something magical about sharing meals,” said former Google CFO Patrick Pichette a few years ago on why Google discourages telecommuting. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?’” That sounds a lot like the traditional college experience, but, in new-model universities, fundamental aspects of traditional ones -- such as personalized teaching, green lawns, academic freedom, shared governance, meaningful exposure to liberal arts education, and time and autonomy for reflection -- are deemed irrelevant.

Take the argument that Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, made in his co-written 2015 book, Designing the New American University. Because expanding access to college degrees requires innovation, and because they wanted to move fast, ASU embraced technology to outsource teaching through, in Crow’s words, “partnerships to expand and improve the online learning experience, utilizing over 100 third-party tools and services.” Instructional designers work with faculty to design online courses that faculty members once taught. “Coaches,” teaching assistants and adjuncts teach online to students who might have had access to professors on campuses.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, celebrates the same reforms at his institution’s online College for America. In a 2013 statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, LeBlanc told senators that “not having traditional instructional faculty is not proving to be a problem. We use academics to construct the learning and to do the assessments, but not in any traditional instructional role. Students, working with the aid of a dedicated SNHU coach (or adviser), access rich learning content, their own resources and each other, and it is proving very effective thus far.”

What makes such reforms so hard to resist is the presumption that the world is moving too fast to take stock. All hands must be on deck. The ship is sinking. Legislators are impatient. Faculty members are complacent. But is this true? Is the world changing so fast that all the things colleges and universities are supposed to do and have done have been rendered irrelevant? Are the forces of disruption really that powerful?

The Value of Continuity

To even start answering these questions, we must examine the assumption that all of society is changing too fast for reflection. How do we know that today is moving faster than yesterday? Are we not just importing a storyline that might be true for one sphere of our lives -- technology -- into other spheres where change is slower? Does a story that emanates from Silicon Valley belong or even explain change elsewhere? And is all human activity subject to the same accelerating forces as technological innovation? Can we speed everything up? Should we?

In his 2008 essay “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society,” sociologist Hartmut Rosa raises the concern that our world is experiencing desynchronized rates of change. He argues that while technological change may be happening very fast, other realms of our shared lives cannot equally be sped up. That includes, he notes, democratic politics. Bold leaders who believe that the world is changing fast have little patience for “the political system’s fundamental inability to accelerate.” But “democratic political decision making” is always slow, Rosa writes, because “processes of deliberation and aggregation in a pluralistic democratic society inevitably take time.”

The same is true for higher education. Some parts of our world may be changing fast, but it’s not clear that one can speed up the rate of change in higher education without significant damage. Yet the narrative of speed, imported from the world of technology into the world of education, serves powerful interests. When we believe we have no time to slow down because the world is changing too fast, we prevent ourselves from asking what kinds of institutions we need. We raise our hands in surrender to what appear to be inexorable forces but are really human aspirations. To those who believe that all spheres of society are changing as fast as technology, there is no time to wait for those not already on board. The only way to stay afloat is to allow visionaries at the top to act boldly. Other people should follow along or be left behind.

Innovators dismiss those who might want to slow down and think, or who worry about what might be lost. We must not sit around and watch faculty members “deliberate while shifts in policy, culture and technology flash by at warp speed,” ASU’s Crow proclaims. There is no time for shared governance.

What these visionaries ignore is that institutions and ideas do not become outdated just like Apple computers. Moreover, disruptive innovation is a language of change but not always a description of the reality of it. As Harvard University historian Jill Lepore has written, disruptive innovation is “not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity.”

But we need continuity, too. Indeed, higher education institutions’ capacity to evolve slowly may be one of their chief virtues. Yes, today’s colleges and universities are vastly different than those of centuries past. But, as disruptive innovators condescendingly remind us, much remains the same. It is this ability of institutions to create spaces insulated from fast change that enables them to maintain forms of knowing that might otherwise disappear, to invest in scholarship that takes decades to pay off, and to educate students with ideas and perspectives that are not always prevalent in public discourse.

If we truly had courage, we would not give in so fast. Colleges and universities today are changing too quickly, not too slowly. Tradition has not been strong enough to withstand external pressure.

In such a context, true courage requires saying that enough is enough. It requires defending the college or university as an academic institution. It requires making clear that some things are worth saving and even savoring -- that continuity has benefits. It requires attributing long-term trends, such as the erosion of tenure or the decline of the liberal arts and public funding, to human beings rather than to disruptive technologies.

If we had courage, we would celebrate the fact that academic life moves slowly. Research takes time. Teaching does, too. To educate a human being requires her or him to step outside of the busyness of daily life. Developing new skills and knowledge takes years. It is even harder to inculcate in students such intellectual virtues as curiosity.

Education is a slow but necessary effort to transform people. It cannot be rushed, at least if we take it seriously. As I wrote in a previous essay, “time is formative.” It harms universities’ research and teaching mission to give in to the narrative of speed, as Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queen’s University, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, both in Canada, also conclude in their recent book The Slow Professor.

If we had courage, we would acknowledge that education cannot be done by machines or be done too fast. We would argue, as do Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs in How College Works, that true learning depends on the cultivation of personal relationships. We would conclude, based on the evidence Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa assemble in Academically Adrift, that the best way to improve student success is to put students on campuses that set high expectations and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences. Maybe we would invoke the work of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham or biologist James E. Zull, who have explored why real learning is tough and takes trust and time. Perhaps we would even stand up for the humanistic and civic goals of liberal education.

In short, we would argue that all students deserve access to real campuses and professors. We would urge legislators to help all students, of any age or background, afford the time it takes to get a college education. We would note that this is particularly true for disadvantaged and first-generation students, who do not benefit from the kinds of reforms disruptors advocate, at least if we want to offer access to a meaningful education and not just to degrees.

Instead of making the case for what works, disruptors have lost faith that their colleges and universities can resist external forces of change. They thus seek to tear down the walls between the institution and the world, forgetting that those walls are not just problems but also solutions. By creating spaces for intellectual refuge and reflection, colleges and universities provide something rare and necessary for our society. Disruptors often portray themselves as heroic agents of change. In reality, they are giving in by giving up. To run from forces that seem too large to counter is human, but it should not be confused for fortitude nor moral courage.

These are hard times, no doubt, for higher education. Colleges and universities face many pressures. It will take a lot of strength to meet new needs and new environments without sacrificing the academy’s core principles and practices.

It will take some resistance, too. We must be sympathetic with administrators who are fearful of the future and feel powerless to change it. They, more than faculty members, must respond to legislators’ demands to offer more degrees cheaper and faster.

But those of us who -- as citizens, legislators, administrators, faculty members and students -- want to pass down the opportunities we have had to future students and professors, and who aspire to increase access to it for first-generation students, must have the courage of our convictions. We must remember what colleges and universities are for and ensure that those purposes are sustained, even as our institutions continue to evolve. In short, we must respond deliberatively, not out of fear that the world is moving too fast for thought.

Johann N. Neem, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of “Experience Matters: Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time.” His new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, will be published later this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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