Hazard or Opportunity?

Discussion of how colleges might respond to economic crisis sees possibility of major change -- and great risk if higher ed dallies like health care and journalism.
June 23, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The thesis behind a meeting of educators and policy makers here Monday was that higher education is facing a crisis and that if its leaders fail to respond adequately, the consequences will be significant for colleges and the country. That's a theme that many critics and an increasing number of supporters of higher education have hit in recent years, from the Spellings Commission to a collection of foundations and advocacy groups, including the sponsors of Monday's meeting: Jobs for the Future, the Lumina Foundation for Education, and Education Sector.

While some postsecondary experts balk at the story line, Monday's meeting put a persuasive twist on it by framing higher education's situation in the context of other industries that have been faced with similar technological and other pressures and have responded, on balance, not so well.

Those in attendance spent the morning hearing experts from fields such as journalism (Alan Mutter) and health care (Joanne Lynn) that have themselves been buffeted by transformative changes, and those presentations left at least some of the participants thinking that, as one put it, "higher education is in many ways better off" than the other industries, given that demand for its product remains high and funding for it remains solid, if not as plentiful as many college leaders might wish.

But looking good compared to the newspaper business (which is widely seen as being in freefall, desperately searching for new business models) and health care (which is absorbing an increasingly unsustainable portion of the United States' gross national product) shouldn't make people in higher education feel especially sanguine. The afternoon's discussion focused on the ways in which college leaders have or haven't responded to the array of technological, demographic and budgetary changes that are combining to increase the pressure on colleges and universities to perform.

As is often the case at such events, those in attendance heard mostly from those who believe that higher education must change and who have sought to respond aggressively. Eric D. Fingerhut, who as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents has led his state's efforts to impose greater efficiency and centralized control on a group of public institutions that had, like those in many states, operated largely as free agents, made it clear that the "crisis" Ohioans face is not the recession of the last year but the larger and longer-unfolding "transition of the economy of the industrial Midwest."

That enormous challenge, Fingerhut said, is "why I want to grab our leaders by the lapels and say, 'Don't you see what's going on around here?'.... The fact is that the ability of future generations of this state to sustain our commitment to a vibrant system of higher education is very much at risk."

While Fingerhut discussed some of the ways his state, under Gov. Ted Strickland, has sought to transform its public higher education system, Paul J. LeBlanc described steps he has taken in six years as president of Southern New Hampshire University (a private institution with a public college name) to make the institution much more responsive to the needs of its students -- and not by building climbing walls.

LeBlanc, who said he believed a decade's worth of boom times in higher education enrollments, endowments and other indicators had "masked" emerging turmoil, described both curricular innovations (a three-year degree, lower-cost satellite campuses) and back-office changes, the latter -- but not the former, LeBlanc said pointedly -- closely modeled on for-profit colleges. "We're tearing up the page in how we do a lot of things operationally," he said, "and all of our benchmarking is on the for-profit side." The university has cut the time it takes to process an online student's financial aid application to 40 days from 90, and expects to drop it to 7 within a year.

"It's appalling how little genuine innovation has gone on in higher education," LeBlanc said, noting that it "took us 25 years to get the overhead projector from the bowling alley to the classroom" decades ago. Asked what he saw as the primary impediment to innovation, LeBlanc cited faculty governance (Best line of the day: He attributed to the president of another New England university the description of a faculty as "a thousand points of No"). But he also said Southern New Hampshire had been able to make the changes it had because of a "set of faculty champions who've come on board."

Eduardo J. Padron, president of Miami Dade College, agreed with Fingerhut that institutional self-interest impeded public higher education's progress and with LeBlanc that the lack of innovation was a problem. But at some point a lack of resources matters, too, he said, especially in a state like Florida that depends on sales tax to fund its government operations. "When the economy's in bad shape, we have the least money for the institutions that are in the best position to strengthen the economy," he said.


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