Three longtime observers of higher education explore the ways -- positive and negative -- that universities are changing in Remaking the American University  (Rutgers University Press).
The authors are Robert Zemsky, a professor and chair of the Learning Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania; Gregory R. Wegner, director of program development at the Great Lakes Colleges Association; and William F. Massy, a professor emeritus of higher education at Stanford University and currently president of the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group. The three authors recently responded (jointly) to questions about their new book.
Q: Of the trends you examine, which ones are most worrisome to you?
A: What worries us most is that universities and colleges have become so preoccupied with succeeding in a world of markets that they too often forget the need to be places of public purpose as well. We are serious in arguing that universities and colleges must be both market smart and mission centered. Not surprisingly, then, we are troubled by how often today institutions allow their pursuit of market success to undermine core elements of their missions: becoming preoccupied with collegiate rankings, surrendering to an admissions arms race, chasing imagined fortunes through impulsive investments e-learning, or conferring so much importance on athletics as to alter the character of the academic community on campus.
By far the most troublesome consequence of markets displacing mission, though, is the reduced commitment of universities and colleges to the fulfillment of public purposes. More than ever before, these institutions are content to advance graduates merely in their private, individual capacities as workers and professionals. In the rush to achieve market success, what has fallen to the wayside for too many institutions is the concept of educating students as citizens -- graduates who understand their obligations to contribute to the collective well-being as active participants in a free and deliberative society. In the race for private advantage, market success too often becomes a proxy for mission attainment.
Q: We've just come through rankings season, with U.S. News and others unveiling their lists. Do you have any hope for turning back the ratings game? Any ideas you would offer to college presidents who are fed up with it?
A: On this one there is no turning back -- the rankings are here to stay. Two, frankly contradictory ideas are worth thinking about. First, university and college presidents should accept as fact that the rankings measure market position rather than quality. An institution’s ranking is essentially a predictor of the net price the institution can charge. The contrary idea is to make the rankings more about quality by having most institutions participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement  and agree to have the results made public. Even then, we are not sure that prestige and market position would not trump student engagement.
Q: Everyone says that they like the idea of assessment and then complain about how it is done (if it is being done to them). How can colleges better measure what they do?
A: The question states the problem well -- people don’t like assessment if it is done to them. The answer lies in getting departments to value assessment because it helps them improve, which in turn requires that there be some payoff to demonstrably improved quality. Even leaving the “done to me” problem out of the equation, assessment methods dictated from above are not likely to be fit for purpose -- people high up in the hierarchy are just not close enough to get it right and are likely to simplify or compromise the usefulness of specific measurement strategies and tools.
Q: What are the major problems with academic publishing -- and what should be done about them?
A: The problem is a disjunction between the sociology and the economics of academic publishing. Publication is the pathway to career advancement for faculty members in virtually every field, and through the past 30 years the volume of traffic on this highway has increased substantially, along with the cost of publishing scholarly work. Every faculty member inherently knows that his or her home institution can no longer afford to provide access to all published work that is relevant to a given discipline. Yet there remain strong traces of what’s been called a “gift exchange society” -- which conceives publication as essentially a free good, circulated openly among those engaged in similar academic pursuit. While the venue of such exchange is extremely important, the author of a given article or book does not seek financial gain per se, but rather the esteem of colleagues, which becomes in turn the basis for promotion within one’s home institution.
Because the problem is complex there is no single solution. One strong antidote, however, is to abandon the mindset that considers the quantity of publication as the coin of the realm for career advancement. It ought to be possible to make the case for tenure or promotion on the basis of, say, three seminal articles representing a candidate’s very best work -- rather than 12 or 20 publications that flesh out a vita but add little to an understanding of someone’s essential caliber and promise. Just as important is to find ways of reducing the cost of academic publication. The disciplinary organizations need to exert leadership in defining a next generation of academic publication – one that continues to make research and scholarship accessible to practitioners of a field while averting the continued growth in costs, in digital as well as traditional print publication.
Q: How do you see distance education changing the concepts of college teaching?
A: New technologies always create unexpected as well as new opportunities. Distance education is a prime example. Web-based distance education can and does use the new technologies in order to succeed, and those successful innovations ought to serve as demonstrations of what can be done on campus. While distance education in the form of correspondence courses has been around for a long time, what the Web allows is a quicker, more efficient distribution of learning materials along with the capacity to establish electronic links among students and faculty. As a result, there has been a substantial reduction in the negative factors associated with distance education.
At the same time, there are new offerings that provide credible alternatives to many on-campus courses in terms of their convenience and flexibility. The logical conclusion, then, ought to be that Web-based courses will force on-campus instruction to become more technologically adept. Alas, higher quality through enhanced innovation has yet to yield the reformation of collegiate teaching that higher education’s critics seek. Not until faculty members, for their own reasons and purposes, decide that Web-based instruction offers both important and sustainable advantages will major changes in collegiate teaching actually happen -- regardless of how attractive distance education becomes.
Q: To what extent is for-profit higher education driving the way colleges are changing? Does this worry you?
A: The for-profits are making the student market more competitive in terms of both price and quality -- and slowly, almost imperceptibly, they are changing the economics of higher education. Where for-profits have succeeded, they have done so by focusing on markets and niches that hold the promise of substantial profits, either because those institutions currently serving the market have ignored their customers or because the cost of instruction is relatively low. In this newly charged competitive environment, traditional universities and colleges face a double threat -- they lose paying customers and, at the same time, they lose their “cash cows.”
In many ways this latter loss is more important. In traditional institutions monies extracted from “cash cows” become a key component of the funds used to support worthy but financially less-than-viable programs. Indeed what distinguishes a university from a business is the ability of the former to engage in precisely this kind of cross-subsidization. For-profits do not support research or museums or instruction in programs where the costs are high and the number of potential students low. And without the ability to cross-subsidize, the intellectual vitality of most universities will be compromised.
So yes, we do worry about the rise of the for-profit sector. Our answer, however, is not to find ways to exclude the for-profits -- that option disappeared years ago. Rather, universities and colleges need to learn how to earn respectable margins on most of their programs rather than counting on just a few “cash cows.” Just as important, they have to be much more conscious and purposeful in how they spend those margins, choosing to invest in a limited number of programs and ventures. That’s what we mean when we say universities and colleges need to be market smart in order to remain mission centered.