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In his stirring, incisive, witty and, at times, acid account of why American higher education has largely proven itself unable to make essential and much-needed changes, Brian Rosenberg, Macalester College’s president emeritus and president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recalls a 2012 Pew Research Center survey of more than 1,000 experts in education and technology.

Some 60 percent of the respondents predicted that by 2020, there would be a widespread transition to hybrid classes “with less frequent on campus, in person class meetings.” Personalized, just-in-time learning would be widespread. Assessment would place “a greater emphasis on individually oriented outcomes and capacities.” Graduation requirements would shift “to customized outcomes.”

Of course, the 39 percent of those who said that “in 2020, higher education will not be much different from the way it is today” were largely proven right.

Rosenberg draws his book’s title—Whatever It Is, I’m Against It—from a song sung by Groucho Marx in the uproariously funny 1932 takedown of college life, Horsefeathers. Like the comedy’s cigar-toting president Quincy Adams Wagstaff, with his grease-painted mustache, president emeritus Rosenberg quickly discovered that any suggestion of change, no matter how seemingly minor, such as reducing Nordic skiing to club status, would provoke an uproar.

His description of what happened after he and the college’s director of the Center of Scholarship and Teaching suggested the faculty might discuss whether an overemphasis on scholarly productivity was at odds with the school’s commitment to high-quality teaching and mentoring proved to be a warning flag: some topics lie beyond the pale and are broached at one’s peril.

One might quibble with some of Rosenberg’s arguments. After all, colleges and universities haven’t been quite as impervious to change as he implies, nor is the faculty as opposed to innovation as he seems to suggest. I can’t think of a single college or university that hasn’t established centers for teaching, writing and instructional technology or learning centers focused on science, math and foreign language instruction. In the face of a declining population of traditional-age college students and under intense pressure to diversify their student bodies economically as well as racially, many institutions have begun to rethink their potential market.

Yet Rosenberg’s essential point strikes me as right on the money: even though many campuses are under enormous financial strain (49 percent of public universities and 26 percent of their private counterparts, according to Bain estimates) and aren’t delivering the outcomes that they promise, the structures, practices and culture of higher education block many of the innovations and impede the experimentation that colleges urgently need.

Red flags are apparent in a series of recent surveys of senior administrators at colleges and universities of all kinds. Only 55 percent of the chief academic officers believe their students are acquiring sufficient writing skills in their gen ed courses, and “13 percent described the academic health of their institutions as failing or poor.” Just one in six college financial officers thought their institution had “made ‘difficult but transformative changes’ in its operation to ‘better position itself for long-term sustainability.’” Among college presidents, 70 percent believe their “institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming and other operations.” The surveys reveal “a peculiar combination of wishful thinking, worry and denial”—and an urgent need for change.

He estimates that only about 100 colleges and universities are “largely immune to the current and future pressures of the marketplace.” The rest are under intense pressure to generate new sources of funding, “in essence, to act like businesses, even if they are nonprofit businesses.” Then, he writes, “we blame them for acting like businesses and call them greedy or duplicitous.”

Rosenberg makes a number of points that will elicit a lot of agreement. That:

  • College rankings largely reflect and confirm reputation and institutional wealth and that there’s nothing that most colleges and universities can do to measurably alter the rankings or their reputation.
  • There is no real qualitative difference in the faculty at most colleges and universities or the quality of the education provided.
  • The biggest difference lies in institutional resources and in their students’ level of preparation, which has everything to do with campuses’ reputation.

Higher education is, in short, the textbook example of a “credence good.” In the absence of verifiable measures of quality, an institution’s reputation and prestige become the primary way that consumers evaluate a campus’s value. This has led campuses, irrespective of their resources or student body, to try to emulate the institutions higher up on the food chain.

That’s a losing game. The result, Rosenberg fears, will be a “high-touch education for the few” and a lower-cost education “of questionable quality for the many.”

Many of Rosenberg’s observations make a lot of sense:

  • That too many master’s programs are little more (in Kevin Carey’s words) than “unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line.”
  • That the graduate offerings in too many humanities departments are “a hodgepodge of specialized inquiries” organized around faculty specializations in fields that are “in need of generalists.”
  • That production of doctoral students must better align with market demand or departments must do a far better job of preparing graduates for nonacademic careers.

His discussion of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ failed 2015 Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. initiative should leave every doctoral-granting program in the humanities shrouded in shame.

One portion of Rosenberg’s book is sure to prompt howls of outrage from many academics: his discussion of the department, tenure, shared governance and the discipline-based major as nearly impenetrable barriers to innovation.

How so?

The faculty, in his view, tend “to put the discipline and department above all,” which has made it extremely difficult for campuses to adapt to shifts in student interests.

Then, there are college majors, which, he suggests, “have little to do with the things you need to know and the work you need to do” after graduation. Majors “are built around the interests and training of faculty, not the needs or priorities of students,” are “designed as if most students will be going on to pursue Ph.D. study in the discipline.”

Shared governance, he fears, is not a matter of consultation, deliberation and a search for consensus, but rather a way for units to defend their own interests, often at the expense of an institution’s financial realities or the students’ welfare.

He is worried “that the most important constituency in a college or university comprises not the students … but the tenured faculty,” and that “freezing departments, specializations and individual faculty members in place for decades is making it agonizingly difficult for institutions that are facing powerful headwinds and calls to diversify to respond with much more than symbolic change.”

He sympathizes with the Georgetown historian Gregory Afinogenov, who has argued that tenure “institutionalizes a hierarchy of privilege and impunity whose chief victims are other academics,” not just part-time adjuncts but graduate students with few prospects for a full-time academic job.

What are the barriers to innovation? Institutional reputations that are largely impervious to change. The absence of incentives to innovation. A system of shared governance that blocks change. Disciplinary thinking and the tenure system.

Of course, the $64,000 question is what is to be done? What we need, Rosenberg suggests, is “A Guide for University Leaders on Clearing All Obstacles to Change and Ensuring That Changes Stick.”

Rosenberg’s book identifies a series of traditions and entrenched practices that colleges and university should reconsider.

One involves expanding access to online learning, offered asynchronously when possible. For adult learners, asynchronous online learning is a necessity. As one of the most astute observers of higher education, who goes by the nom de plume Unemployed Northeastern, puts it in a personal message:

“the traditional college student today is the nontraditional college student: older, with work experience, possibly a family / house / whatever and looking at college strictly as a box-checking exercise to reach the next echelon at work. They aren’t looking for the on-campus college experience because they have jobs and kids and don’t have the time or inclination for it. And for the late teen college matriculants straight out of high school, they now have [seen] 20+ years of older relatives, friends, etc. with ‘irrelevant’ degrees get pummeled by the job market.“

But many traditional-age undergraduates, who are awkwardly juggling jobs and extracurriculars alongside their studies, also want more online options, especially for courses outside their major. Indeed, Rosenberg is convinced “that the most lasting effect of the pandemic … is likely to be a heavier reliance on online instruction.”

Another area ripe for innovation: the academic calendar. Why, Rosenberg asks, must 120 credits be spread out over four years interrupted by extended breaks? Among the consequences: summertime learning loss, the inefficient use of campus facilities and higher costs for precisely those students who can least afford to prolong their undergraduate education.

Rosenberg is particularly concerned about “pedagogical ossification” and an overemphasis on “learning by being spoken to” rather than learning by doing and on formal instruction by a professor as opposed to facilitated, self-directed learning.

Also, the value of the humanities and social sciences for prospective STEM majors might be enhanced “if the relevance of those disciplines is made evident as they are brought to bear on a clearly defined set of practical challenges.”

Rosenberg Is not wholly pessimistic. After all, as he observes, “higher education is an industry in which winning initiatives are quickly copied.” Obvious examples include the embrace of one-stop student service centers and of data-informed advising.

His book concludes with two striking examples of transformational innovation. One is the African Leadership University, a network of institutions in Mauritius and Rwanda founded in 2015 to make a bachelor’s degree much more accessible. Students organize their education around one of 14 grand challenges facing Africa, “including urbanization, education, climate change, governance, agriculture, women’s empowerment and gender equity, conservation and arts, culture, and design.”

With a limited number of majors—including business management and software and electrical power systems engineering—a problem-based curriculum and an emphasis on internships and work experience, ALU doesn’t try to offer programs for every “personal and professional ambition.” Rather, it’s “very clear about what it does and what it does not do.”

The other example is Sterling College Vermont, a “micro” work college with only about 100 undergraduates which focuses on ecology, environmental stewardship, the environmental humanities, outdoor and place-based education, and sustainable agriculture and food systems. Sterling offers an example of an institution with less disciplinary rigidity, a greater focus on issues that matter in the world, a more clearly defined, limited and genuinely distinctive mission and a greater stress “on students as the highest priority” and “as the drivers of their own learning.”

Neither ALU nor Sterling “attempts to combine a research enterprise with undergraduate education … let alone with professional schools, hospitals and intercollegiate sports.” In Rosenberg’s words:

“Students at a college like Sterling or ALU still read literature, still consider philosophical problems, still use scientific methods, but they do so in pursuit of answers to a particular set of questions and in combination with other forms of learning.”

Given the structural and cultural barriers to innovation at the vast majority of institutions, what can institutional leadership do to incentivize experimentation?

One possible answer is to create islands of innovation: spaces where like-minded faculty members can adopt practices that are more interdisciplinary and “more student centered, more experimental and more holistic.” Tap the energy and imagination of creative faculty members and recognize and reward their efforts.

Another possible step forward is to reshape the incentive structure and do more to awaken campus stakeholders of the challenges their institution faces. Regents, accreditors, university systems and state higher education coordinating boards should require every institution to:

  1. Chart and regularly update trends in retention, attrition, completion and student engagement and satisfaction.
  2. Compare its performance with peer institutions.

“An unchallenged consensus,” Rosenberg writes, “can too easily lead to complacency.” Data can help drive discussion and promote change.

I’d also call on institutions to identify its student success goals and delineate strategies, with accountability measures, to achieve those objectives. Such a plan might address the following issues:

  1. Credit transfer: Working with feeder institutions to make credit transfer more seamless and ensuring that transfer credit evaluation takes place in a timely manner.
  2. Onboarding: Making sure that every entering student receives a four-year degree plan and a designated point of contact.
  3. Academic quality: Expanding access to high-impact practices, including learning communities and mentored research.
  4. Course availability: Guaranteeing access to essential gateway courses.
  5. Removal of academic obstacles: Redesigning high-DFW gateway courses. Streamlining of excessively complicated degree requirements.
  6. Academic advising: Data-informed monitoring of student performance to trigger proactive interventions when students are off-track. A graduation specialist empowered to help students with 90 or more credits to earn a degree.
  7. Student services: Implementing scaled academic and nonacademic supports, including supplemental instruction sections of high-DFW courses with significant achievement gaps.

Rosenberg is right: people like me who offer lofty, ambitious visions of institutional transformation need to devise realistic, affordable and actionable strategies for achieving their goals.

Good ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s implementation that’s hard given the many barriers—in terms of finance organizational structures, governance and campus cultures—to change. My answer is twofold: focus a college’s attention on the challenges it faces and then tap the idealism, energy and insights of the faculty and staff who, in the end, are the ones who will make change happen.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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