'Abelard to Apple'

September 9, 2011

The latest book to suggest that American higher education needs to face up to a period of radical change is Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press). Abelard represents the medieval ideal of scholar/teacher/philosopher while Apple is the world of iTunes U. The author is Richard A. DeMillo, Distinguished Professor of Computing, professor of management and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology. DeMillo is the author of more than 100 articles, books, and patents -- and he also has held key positions outside of academe, having served as director of the Computer and Computation Research Division of the National Science Foundation and as the first chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard.

He discussed the themes of his book in an e-mail interview:

Q: There are a number of books out of late predicting "disruption" for higher education. How do you see your book as different?

A: I don't think this is a book about "disruption." It's a book about values, the forces that shape universities, and how American higher education has lost its way. Disruption is important, but even more important is why some schools make good choices and why others seem so trapped by tradition and culture that they are unable to act to save themselves from economic and political forces that are reshaping other institutions. These are ideas that are batted around at faculty meetings, but when professors get together to talk about change, they are talking mainly to each other. Most people do not understand how universities work, why they cost so much, how they got this way, and why they are so slow to change.

I see a lot of books that look at the same facts and say, "More funding!" or "More technology!" Some say "Stop coddling professors," and others say "Change the entire system." To those outside the system, none of this is very comprehensible or practical. My message is that American colleges and universities do not have to change who they are, they have to discover who they are. It's an agenda that is within the reach of every institution.

I also wanted to write a book that would be engaging for academic outsiders. It's a book that should be read like a novel. Every chapter reveals a little more about the character of our institutions and their challenges. They are trapped by culture and tradition and continue to sow the seeds of their own destruction. They know how to save themselves, but they have to abandon old ideas and throw in with a band of distasteful characters.

Q: You focus on the "middle" of colleges. How do you define that group?

A: American higher education is a class system. In the 1950's Theodore Caplow and Reece McGee published a book called The Academic Marketplace -- one of the first in-depth studies of academic culture. They made the following classification of colleges and universities: Major League, Minor League, Bush League, and Academic Siberia. It's a little harsh, but even today it's pretty close to how institutions perceive themselves. Higher education is a hierarchy with a few elites -- less than a hundred -- at the top. At the other end are the new arrivals like the for-profit universities and the literal explosion in the number of new universities in Asia. The rest of our higher education system -- somewhere between two and three thousand colleges and universities -- sits in the middle and is being squeezed at both ends. The system promotes a culture in which schools in the middle chase the elites. Unfortunately, it's a costly, rigged game that they are not equipped to play. Interestingly, as a recent Pew poll shows, the middle is for the most part oblivious to the new realities. They think they are doing fine when study after study shows that most of them are in deep trouble. There is a Lake Wobegon-like belief that everyone is above average.

Q: Some argue that elite colleges (especially private institutions, which tend to have the highest tuition rates) are also vulnerable. What changes do you see coming for them?

A: In this economic climate, everyone is vulnerable, but the elites are probably best-equipped to prosper. For one thing, tuition costs affect them less than the middle because the elites can pick and choose their students and there is no shortage of willing payers. In fact, as the middle becomes more expensive, the pool of qualified applicants to elite colleges actually grows. You can argue that it's not good for higher education that the institutions at the top draw from an increasingly narrow socioeconomic slice of America, but that's where we are heading. The other thing to understand about the elites is that they can afford to take risks. Where are the daring experiments? They are at places like MIT and Stanford. The ability to set your own agenda is a powerful advantage for the elite colleges. Truly innovative universities will do the best in the long run, and you have to get a lot of ideas on the table. The elites seem to be the ones that are most interested in doing that.

Q: Do you see the changes you predict improving the quality of higher education, the efficiency, both or neither?

A: It's not really the right question. The natural implication is: "If all these changes don't improve things, then don't change." It assumes that we have a choice about whether to change. I see change as inevitable. I have a colleague who is fond of saying that there are only two things wrong with higher education: what we teach and how we teach it. You can't nibble around the edges of a problem like that. Quality is declining and costs are increasing. There are no guarantees anymore. Every week there are more schools that close programs, reduce offerings and in some cases shut down altogether. My advice for the middle is this: figure out what you do that makes you different and more valuable and then figure out how to offer that to as many students as you can. So it comes back to value, and institutions that are needlessly costly or do not provide quality for the tuition dollar are simply not going to survive intact. Will things be improved after all this change has taken place? There are no guarantees. That's a question that the winners will answer.

Q: Many faculty members fear the role of for-profit interests in the current evolution of higher education. Should they?

A: I don't think it's so much fear as a dismissive arrogance. Most of my colleagues look at for-profits and see where they are today, not where they are heading. There is a common belief, for example, that we -- the traditional institutions -- can regulate the for-profits out of existence because we know the right and true path to a university degree. Meanwhile there is a great experiment taking place in the for-profit sector. Great innovation will be the result, and if traditional professors ignore the lessons of innovation they are likely to be left in the dust.

Q: What are the key ways you see the faculty role evolving in the years ahead?

A: This will be a particularly challenging time for university faculty members. People have asked me about the title of my book, Abelard to Apple. Peter Abelard was an 11th-century French monk who is today mainly known for his disastrous love affair with Heloise. Less well known was his influence on the course of Western universities. He was maybe the first true professor. I use Abelard as a metaphor for the ideal of university teaching. He was a charismatic, compelling figure whose ideas provoked debate and thought and who was able to draw and engage students in large numbers. "Apple" refers to Apple's iTunes U, a technology platform for the most gifted teachers to reach and engage with students in huge numbers.

There is a message in the journey that higher education took from Peter Abelard to Apple Computer: professors who do not provide value, who are excessively, inwardly focused on the concerns of their profession, who confuse lecturing with teaching, who confuse scholarship with winning sponsored research grants, are usually swept to the margins.

Let's just take the impact of technology as an example. ITunes U, Khan Academy and other technologies mean that all of a sudden the best teachers in the world can reach students with the most beautifully crafted and effective presentations of course material. Technology like social networking means that learning communities can spring up spontaneously and be far more effective at mentoring than occasionally scheduled office hours. That means every professor has to find a way to add value beyond lecturing and beyond holding undergraduates at arm's length to pursue more interesting activities. That has to be a frightening prospect for many of my colleagues.

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