CHICAGO -- Like many advocacy groups, higher education associations are notoriously self-referential (if not self-reverential). They're quick to promote the good work of their own members, but are typically loath to draw attention to institutions with which they compete.
Which made it all the more striking when George L. Mehaffy, a vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, opened a meeting of provosts here late last week by projecting on the video screen overhead the bold commercial  that Kaplan University has used to promote itself -- in large part by not-so-subtly dissing traditional colleges and universities like those that belong to AASCU ("It's time for a different kind of university," the professor at the lectern tells students apologetically. "It's your time.")
"It is our time," Mehaffy told the public university provosts when the commercial ended, "time to get serious about the process of change in American higher education. It is important that we resolve to make substantive changes -- major changes, not changes around the margins -- and that we do so with a fierce sense of urgency."
To the chief academic officers in the audience at AASCU's Academic Affairs summer meeting,  virtually all of whom are facing intense budget pressures at the same time that state and national leaders are telling them their campuses need to be more productive and efficient, the idea that something needs to give was not a hard sell.
They also seemed to accept the idea that if significant change was to come from within higher education, rather than be imposed on it from outside, provosts were those best able to bring it about, situated as they are between presidents focused increasingly on fund raising and often distant from the front lines and faculties focused mainly on their disciplines and often wary of, if not hostile to, transformative change. ("Someone has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us," Mehaffy quoted "that great philosopher," the Grateful Dead's late Jerry Garcia, as saying.)
And the provosts generally welcomed the prospect that Mehaffy and AASCU were holding out: a yearlong (at least) project on "re-imagining undergraduate education"  in which the association plans to work with campus leaders to identify a set of initiatives aimed at driving both institution-wide reforms and possibly national efforts (such as open-access course development) in which AASCU member colleges might share.
But while the chief academic officers seemed open in theory to the idea of driving transformative change, and spent two full days hearing from colleagues about initiatives and pilot projects of various types they had undertaken on their campuses, many of them readily acknowledged that they weren't quite sure how likely it was that sweeping change would unfold on their campuses, and what it might look like if it did.
"I don't know what model leads us out of this particular wilderness," said Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University's Northridge campus.
But collaboration will be key, said Sally M. Johnstone, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Winona State University, in Minnesota. "One big lesson that seems obvious is that anything that I think of is not going to be anywhere near as good as that that we can come to collectively."
Red Balloons and Institutional Change
That was one of the two key themes that Mehaffy and AASCU emphasized in calling their new effort "the Red Balloon Project," which was inspired by the contest  that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored to mark its 40th anniversary. The agency moored 10 bright red weather balloons in locations across the United States and offered a $40,000 prize to the person or people who could most quickly report the locations of all 10.
Using a website that took advantage of social networking and other technologies, a five-person team of professors and grad students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the balloons in under nine hours -- and it took them only a few days in advance of the contest launch to set up the entire network.
The contest captured Mehaffy's attention, he told the provosts, both because of what it says about how networked technology has transformed the way that knowledge is created and shared, and because it shows how much collaboration can drive problem solving.
"We are collectively smarter than we are individually, and we now have tools to make that smartness happen," Mehaffy said.
The meeting was part pep talk from national experts on institutional change (like Mark Milliron of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose "Optimist's Education Agenda"  has become wildly popular fare on the higher ed conference circuit) and part nuts and bolts presentations by academic officers who have put in place innovative practices on their own campuses.
The latter included efforts to reduce the need for remedial course work, like Northern Kentucky University's collaboration to reach into local high schools (and a related effort at Eastern Kentucky), to Southeast Missouri State University's campaign to teach synchronous courses via video conferencing technology to touch hard-to-reach students and drive down costs, to Northern Arizona University's aggressive steps to trim underenrolled majors and concentrations, in the face of enrollment growth and budget pressures that have left the university with 24 percent more students and 10 percent fewer faculty person hours than it had five years ago.
"If we don't think we're going to have to reinvent ourselves, we are delusional," said Liz Grobsmith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern Arizona.
She and Karen Pugliesi, the vice provost, described efforts to corral a program development process that "evolved through a process of elaboration and accretion," as Pugliesi put it, by weeding out undersubscribed sub-majors in many fields. "We had not just one or two majors in environmental science or geography, but six in each," she said.
When the process is complete, Pugliesi said, "we will have fewer course options, but those we have will be well-designed, and well-articulated."
Enthusiasm and Impediments
Few of the provosts in the room had to be persuaded that the ways their academic programs have been operated in the past are unlikely to work in an era where their campuses are expected to serve significantly more (and less well-prepared) students with the same or fewer financial resources.
But many acknowledged that in contemplating meaningful changes, they would be working against an academic culture that does not adapt quickly, to say the least.
"Some people will immediately seize an idea [out of the Red Balloon project] and move rapidly forward," said Mehaffy. "Others will think it's an interesting idea, form a committee, get a consultant, maybe do a survey. Maybe three or four years from now they'll do a pilot project on red balloons, while the rest of the institution doesn't change."
As is true of many meetings of academic administrators, discussions about bringing about change on campuses frequently turned to the faculties, and in some cases provosts described instructors on their campuses as being stereotypically, almost preternaturally predisposed to oppose any kind of progress or change.
But a number of the provosts said they had begun to see progress in working closely with faculty leaders who, when fully informed about the nature and extent of the budget and other problems facing their universities, were willing partners in contemplating meaningful changes.
Johnstone of Winona State described her efforts to get leaders of the university's faculty union "really up to speed" on the "constraints that are going to be facing the entire university," and getting their advice on "how I can move forward at a pace this campus has never seen before."
"They get it," Johnstone said. And where a few years ago, the faculty was an obstacle to change, "now it has really become an opportunity, a way to move forward," she said. And that's essential, she added, because "changes have got to come from the faculty. You cannot change the campus without changing the culture."
Added Abe Harraf, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Northern Colorado: "Faculty want to come along. They just want to be participants instead of just being told" what they have to do.
For all the brainstorming, many participants probably left Chicago not at all sure where the Red Balloon project might lead -- or whether it would lead anywhere at all. Even Mehaffy, in his straight-ahead way, acknowledged as much: "We don't really have a clue how this is going to turn out," he said.
But AASCU's hope is that taking advantage of technology to create new channels among provosts for sharing ideas and expertise would both help them carry out reforms on their own campuses and point the way to multi-institutional projects that AASCU might sponsor itself, up to and including the formulation of common general-education courses that the association might develop and make available to institutions free.
The big challenge for AASCU institutions, and higher education generally, Mehaffy said, is bringing the small signs of progress and pockets of transformation that are unfolding on campuses around the country to a broader level.
"All of the innovations are out there, they're just not out there across our institutions in any widescale way," he said.
Time matters, said Selase W. Williams, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. Given the rapidly changing demographic pool of the students who will be entering higher education in coming years, dominated increasingly by those who are academically underprepared, "if we're failing American higher education today, we will fail even more miserably then."
"The challenge will be greater then than it is now," he said. "We've got to get this right."