In more than four decades researching and writing about higher education policy, finance and management, University of Pennsylvania professor Robert Zemsky has touched on just about every corner of the higher education world.
He’s written books about curriculum design, federal policy, faculty life and the effect of market forces on higher education. He has sat on numerous panels – including the Spellings Commission – with the goal of reforming higher education. And he’s moderated countless discussions about the fate of the sector. He’s heard all the problems, potential solutions and perspectives, and even contributed a few of his own
And in all that time, what has he found? Can all that knowledge and experience synthesize to bring about the change that multiple voices say is necessary for higher education?
When he pulls all those strands together, which he tries to do in his most recent book, A Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise  (Rutgers University Press), Zemsky finds himself with less of a ladder and more of a Gordian knot.
“Those of us in higher education really are living in an Ecclesiastes moment – change may be happening all around us, but for the nation’s colleges and universities, there really is precious little that is new under the sun,” Zemsky writes in the introduction to his book. “For 30 years, the very thing that each wave of reformers has declared needed to be changed has remained constant.”
And the lack of action worries him. If nothing changes, Zemsky sees higher education going down a path that will lead to essentially two systems, reminiscent of the British higher education system at the end of the 20th century. One group of institutions will focus on job-training. The others, likely elite private institutions, will continue to teach a liberal arts curriculum and become bastions of the wealthy.
In Checklist, which Zemsky refers to as “an end-of-career summing up” (though he notes that he’s likely not done writing), Zemsky tries to root out what exactly is preventing higher education from making the kinds of changes that, since at least the 1980s, people have been saying it needs to make.
“This is a book that answers three questions that really intrigue me,” Zemsky said in an interview. “The first is, ‘Why haven’t we changed?’ ... Then, ‘What would change actually look like?’ … And then the end says, ‘What would it take to have macro change?’ ”
In attempting to answer the first question – why colleges haven’t changed – Zemsky comes up four major impediments: A disengaged faculty resistant to change, a national market in higher education that makes it difficult to differentiate institutions, an accreditation and regulatory process that punishes innovation and a curriculum that he writes often lacks cohesion and that drives many to question its value. Each one feeds on the other, and all are in general natural responses and evolutions of roles and the sector over time.
“There is no need to search for villains or miscreants, for there are none,” Zemsky writes. “Much more often than not, those policies and practices that ardent reformers proclaim to be broken began life as good ideas that time and unintended consequences have rendered problematic."
Zemsky’s answer to unraveling the web of issues is a complex one, requiring multiple stakeholders – from faculty members to the federal government – to change their outlooks and actions. And rather than a menu of options that can be taken up individually, Zemsky, as the title notes, is presenting a checklist. All (or almost all) of the changes he calls for would have to be enacted for any component to be successful.
While Zemsky has some harsh words for faculty members in the book, as a tenured faculty member himself he says he really believes that faculty members need to take a leading role in shaping whatever higher education looks like in the future. “It won’t be the kind of higher education we want if faculty sit on the sidelines,” he said.
Faculty members need to accept that change is going to happen, Zemsky argues in the book, and become active participants in shaping what that change will look like. “If you get faculty thinking, ‘We can do better,’ you’re a third of the way home,” Zemsky said. “And then the next third of the way home is that because we’re smart people, we say ‘What’s the alternative?’ And the last third is because we’re going to make you. But you can’t have two-thirds of it be ‘Were going to make you.’ ”
Faculty members, particularly tenure-track ones, need to shift their orientation from worrying about their own jobs to worrying about the sector, he says. He suggest better defining the role of non-tenure-track faculty, ensuring that outstanding faculty become faculty leaders, and making the department, rather than individual instructors, the unit of production to better promote co-teaching.
Zemsky suggests a "dual-track" system of faculty, where non-tenure-track faculty members have clear expectations that typically include larger undergraduate teaching loads and fewer research responsibilities than tenure-track faculty members. They should typically be given full-time employment when possible, he argues, as well as a seat at the table in discussions about academic policies and the future of the institution.
It's clear in the book that Zemsky values the traditional tenure structure, but he does not believe that all faculty member should fall under it. Over time, Zemsky argues, institutions will likely strike a balance between tenured faculty members and those whose primary responsibility is undergraduate teaching.
Zemsky also argues that the curriculum needs to be redesigned, a point he has been arguing for several decades. The main thrust of his argument in this regard is that undergraduate curriculums have become too fractured. Some of the ideas are changes he has pushed in the past, including winnowing down the undergraduate curriculum to 90 credits that can be completed in three years. In his book, Zemsky does not say what would stay or go in the three-year degree, a task he leave for college faculty members. "Converting to a three-year, 90-credit baccalaureate degree would force college faculty to decide what was and, just as importantly, what was not central to an undergraduate education," he writes.
He also wants to see students in structured cohorts that pass through the curriculum at similar rates. “For me … the more essential element is adequate design rather than more elements from which to choose,” Zemsky writes.
For example, the book applauds an effort by Stanford’s English department to create more coherence in the undergraduate curriculum by adding a series of survey courses to provide context for their more specialized courses.
He holds up several other examples of institutional faculty taking a lead role in changing their curricular structure, including reforms at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, the University of Minnesota at Rochester Community and Technical College, and Whittier College, where Zemsky serves as a trustee.
But, Zemsky notes, campus and faculty efforts like the above can at best only be part of the solution. The only stakeholder with enough clout (and money) to bring about real reform is the federal government. “Today nearly everyone worries simply because the federal government has become a principal obstacle to many, perhaps even most, of the items on my Checklist,” Zemsky writes.
Student aid needs to be reformed so students can use it for remedial education, institutions need to be more active in determining who gets student loans and the federal government needs to separate regulation of student loans from the accreditation system, Zemsky argues in the book.
And he argues that the country needs a national testing regime for higher education to better evaluate what students are learning. Instead of one test, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, he sees a “portfolio of examinations that map the broad range of skills, competencies, and attitudes whose acquisition ought to be the central purpose of an undergraduate education.”
He sees some of the tests built around competencies – can a student perform certain tasks and does that student have knowledge of specific topics? – an idea that has gained traction in recent years. But he also says tests need to demonstrate capacities – can students think and act in particular ways? -- similar to the United States Medical Licensing Exam.
And while he sees government action as a necessary step to bring about reform, Zemsky is somewhat pessimistic about the chances of that actually happening.
“None of this is going to happen unless there is some sort of bringing together of leadership,” he said in an interview. “This political fracturing that’s going on, this isn’t television drama, this is real. Nothing goes forward.”
He sees the only way that reform will get going is if the federal government begins to foster a real national discussion about the issues. So maybe it’s a good thing Zemsky’s not sure he’s done writing.