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How many of you work at the institution where you were once a student?

Charles Bailyn, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, was an undergraduate there from 1977 to 1981. This personal history puts Charles in a good position to consider how higher education has changed over the past few decades.

Charles contacted me in response to my piece “Higher Education Change in 35-Year Increments: 1990, 2025 and 2060.” I wanted to give Charles an opportunity to expand on his thoughts, and he graciously agreed to participate in this Q&A.

Q: Let’s start with some introductions. Tell us about your role(s) at Yale. And give us a brief tour of your academic career.

Charles Bailyn, a light-skinned man with light-brown hair and a bear with some gray. He is wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt under a brown leather jacket.

A: When I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1977, the huge changes to Yale College that had occurred over the previous decade were largely accomplished. As a Jewish physics major, I didn’t feel particularly out of place, as I surely would have in the mid-1960s. I was away from Yale as a grad student and postdoc and then, by sheer chance of what jobs were available, returned to New Haven in 1990 as an assistant professor. My familiarity with undergraduate culture prompted my colleagues to appoint me as director of undergraduate studies of astronomy at a precocious age two years after I arrived—then, in 1998–99, over the course of a single year, I got tenure, was promoted to full professor and became chair of the astronomy department.

I served as one of the leaders of the Yale College Committee on Education, which carried out a full review of the undergraduate curriculum from 2001–03, and served on a variety of other committees in the university, as well as in various roles in the scientific community. Then from 2011 to 2016 I was the inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College, a joint project between Yale and the National University of Singapore to create a residential liberal arts college in Singapore. I lived in Singapore for three years, returning to New Haven in 2016, when I took up the role of head of college (what we used to call “master”) of one of Yale’s residential colleges. I lived among the undergraduates until this past summer, when I stepped back into a more normal faculty position.

Q: Your undergraduate degree from Yale was in 1981. From your experience as a student and then your subsequent experience at Yale as a professor, starting in 1990, what are some of the big things you have seen change about the university?

A: My cohort as an undergraduate was conscious that big changes had recently taken place at Yale. Just 10 years before we arrived (in 1967, when George W. Bush was a junior), Yale College was entirely male, almost entirely white and dominated by graduates of the Northeast prep schools. Jews, scholarship students, public school graduates, Californians and Southerners felt their minority status acutely. By the time we arrived, the sex ratio was 50-50, the fraction of students from the elite prep schools had dropped precipitously (in the mid-’60s there were well over 100 students from Andover in each Yale class—as I recall, in our year it was about 25), financial aid was a standard feature of college life, there was a very prominent African American presence and so on.

The curriculum had been totally revamped: women’s studies and AfroAm, for example, moved in little more than a decade from being nonexistent, to individual courses, to programs, to majors and finally to full-up departments. The shock waves of this existential transformation were still evident in the attitudes of the faculty and alumni—but to most of us incoming undergraduates, the new regime seemed completely natural, if still obviously imperfect in many ways, and the nostalgia of the old fogies for the Yale that used to be was incomprehensible.

By contrast, the decade between 1981 (when I graduated) to 1990 (when I returned as a faculty member) saw no significant development other than the social consequences of raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. The curriculum and extracurriculum were essentially identical, as were the demographics and attitudes of the students. That status quo continued largely unchanged for the next 20 years. I suspect that my cohort of the Class of 1981 had roughly the same experience as the Class of 2011. Our curriculum review at the turn of the century tweaked the rules and regulations somewhat (to good effect, I think), but the spirit of the enterprise emerged unchanged.

When I got back from Singapore in 2016, it was evident that things were once again shifting. Not as abruptly as in the late 1960s, but steadily and significantly. Those shifts have continued through my time as head of college and were amplified by the COVID emergency. The demographics of the students changed—there are twice as many FGLI students at Yale now as there were in 2010; many more international students; it is becoming unusual for a student to be paying full tuition; and the undergraduate population is now minority white. The range of faces in the dorms and classrooms has changed more in the past 10 years than in the previous 30.

This has generated changes across the curriculum (especially in introductory STEM courses), as we have a much larger cohort of talented and ambitious students with relatively weak high school preparation, sitting alongside classmates with the finest secondary education the world has to offer. Student interests have changed dramatically: computer science has moved from a niche major (Yale being perhaps the most humanities and arts–oriented of the major private research universities) to one of the largest majors in the college. The ubiquity of smartphones and social media has altered undergraduate behavior and social life beyond recognition. The added stress to adolescents from being perpetually on display to the world may be related to the dramatic rise of mental health concerns. I do not remember any student asking for leniency on the grounds of mental health prior to 2010, whereas now many students have formal academic accommodations, and they all feel free to appeal for extensions and the like due to mental health difficulties on a regular basis.

Issues of diversity and equity have been at the forefront of student activism and faculty and administrative concerns since the ’60s, but the approaches to these issues are different now. At the turn of the century we had barely heard the words “inclusion” and “belonging,” concepts that have become central to our approaches to these matters, approaches that have generated considerable pushback in the broader society. Indeed, the attitude of the outside world toward elite education and research has changed more generally—in the STEM disciplines, the demise of respect for expertise and the politicization of science are particularly noticeable. Beyond that, we see increasingly forceful (and appropriate) reminders that the fate of places like Yale is irrelevant to much of the sector—that shift in perspective is also part of the current set of changes. Post-pandemic, I see no sign that we are returning to the previous status quo—rather, we seem to be lurching toward some kind of new normal, the nature of which is not at all clear.

Q: Given how much has changed since you graduated, can you speculate on where higher education might go in the next 30 or 40 years?

A: I think the best way to think of the evolution of academic life is through the concept of “punctuated evolution” from evolutionary biology: the idea is that there are long periods of relative stasis, interspersed with moments of rapid change. One such moment was clearly the late ’60s and early ’70s and, as noted above, I think we’re in the midst of such a moment right now.

With this in mind, my guess is that by 2030 some sort of new normal will be more or less established and that it will look as different from 2010 as 1980 did from 1965. I can’t predict what this new status quo will be, any more than an observer in the mid-’60s could have predicted what college life would be like just a few years in the future. But whatever it is, I suspect that it will still be recognizable in 2060, just as the broad contours and many of the details of campus life in the ’80s were still present in 2010.

If this guess is correct, there’s an important implication: new, long-lasting innovations will take hold in the next few years, for better or worse, and whatever these are will establish what universities are going to be like for decades to come. Right now is one of those moments—similar to the late ’60s and early ’70s—when everything is up for grabs and the actions of institutions and individuals take on an outsized long-term significance.

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